Appropriate vs. Apropos vs. Apt

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a discussion of “appropriate vs. apropos vs. apt.”

All three words may be used as adjectives meaning suitable or pertinent:

Your reference to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is apropos of the way so many people conform to social expectations rather than think for themselves.

I admire your apt choice of words in this article.

A rating of “G” indicates that a movie is appropriate for children.

Of the three adjectives, appropriate [uh-PRO-pree-it] is heard more often.

Appropriate derives from the past participle of a Latin verb, a combination of ad (to) and proprius (own). Something appropriate “belongs” to someone or something. Here are some examples of current usage:

How Having An Appropriate Level Of Confidence Can Better Your Life

By comparing many entertainment jobs, you should be able to get a good idea of the appropriate salary.

The young offender could not be questioned without an appropriate adult present

Was Lohan’s courtroom attire appropriate?

Note: English also has the verb appropriate [uh-PRO-pree-ATE], “to take possession of.” For example, “A section of land at St. Clement’s in Oxford…has been appropriated to planning purposes to facilitate a regeneration project intended for the area.”

Apt is from the Latin word aptus, “fitted, suited, appropriate.” The adjective derives from a verb meaning “to fasten, to attach.” The most common use of apt is to describe the fitness or expressiveness of language.

Another meaning of apt is “ready to learn,” as in “She’s an apt student.” Sometimes apt is a synonym for likely: “Children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.”

Apt can also be used in the sense of “having an unfortunate tendency, or “exposed to a risk”:

Spanked kids more apt to commit crimes

Study: Immigrants who live, work together less apt to learn English

The adjectival use of apropos is the least common of the three. I’ve seen forum comments asserting that apropos is “never a synonym for appropriate.” A French borrowing, apropos functions more often as a preposition or as an adverb.

Apropos comes from French à propos, “with regard to this purpose.” As an adjective, it is a synonym for appropriate:

My point is rather that it is not apropos in every case.

The mayor called the cornflake comment “not apropos” and warned Lukaszuk to be careful of what he says.

Your allusion to Josephine Tey’s bit of dialogue was very clever and funny…but not apropos…

As a preposition, apropos means “with reference to; concerning”:

The principal remarked apropos the new regulations, “They will cost a lot to implement and do nothing to address the problem.”

As an adverb, apropos is most commonly heard in the expression “apropos of nothing.” The sense is that someone’s comments or actions are completely unrelated to any previous discussion or situation. For example, “Apropos of nothing, Tom started talking about his root canal.”

The usual preposition to follow apropos is of.

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