Deplete

By Maeve Maddox

A reader questions the following use of depleting:

The following headline appeared in Jamaica’s leading newspaper today: “My Savings are depleting. What am I doing wrong?”

The reader suggests changing “My savings are depleting” to “My savings are being depleted.”

Like the reader, I thought the headline sounded wrong. “Savings are being depleted” sounds more idiomatic to my ear than “savings are depleting,” but I would have changed deplete to a different verb entirely: “My savings are diminishing” or “My savings are running out.”

Deplete is from the Latin verb deplere. The de- is a negative prefix added to the verb plere, “to fill.” Deplere is “to bring down or undo the fullness of, to empty out.” It can also mean, “to let blood.”

The intransitive use of deplete in the sense of “running out” or “becoming exhausted” appears frequently in environmental contexts with subject words like supplies and resources:

Groundwater supplies are depleting at rapid rates around the world.

More water is being taken out than put back in by natural replenishment (recharge), and supplies are depleting as a result.

The world’s resources are depleting because of a population that is out of control. 

Although frequent in officialese, this intransitive use sounds odd to me. More idiomatic is to follow deplete with an object, as in these examples:

My husband’s lack of employment is depleting our life’s savings.

That section [of a law] limits the production and consumption of a set of chemicals known to deplete the stratospheric ozone.

Charter schools severely deplete the resources available to the existing public schools.

The following examples would be improved by substituting diminishing or running out for depleting:

This [dog] is currently in Chicago with a trainer getting evaluated and learning some more manners but that time is depleting and she is needing a home not the shelter to go back to.

I found my patience depleting by the minute. 

My health is failing and my friends are depleting.

Perhaps some writers or speakers choose deplete in an attempt to avoid a cliché, but sometimes a cliché is less distracting than the unfamiliar use of a word.

For example, time is usually said to “run out.” Patience “wears thin.” As one grows old, “friends pass away.”

Sometimes deplete is the wrong choice entirely, as in this comment on a site about dental care:

It seems my gums are depleting.

Deplete connotes an emptying out of an exhaustible quantity. Gums recede, but they don’t deplete.

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