Existent vs. Existing

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about the correctness of the following phrase: “the strengths of the existent organization.”

Says the reader:

I just read this phrase in an email sent out from the Dean’s office of a large Midwestern university known nationally for academic excellence. Personally, I would not have written the sentence with the word “existent” — I would have used “existing.” Did someone not proofread carefully enough? Is “existent” OK to use? Does it sound too snooty?

Although both adjectives mean “having being or existence in the present time,” existing is the word most commonly used to describe such things as organizations, processes, laws, and amenities:

Your IT department might have a list of best practices and guidelines that you can use to streamline information, avoid duplication, protect sensitive data, and use existing systems more efficiently.

Use of immunoglobulin heavy- and light-chain measurements compared with existing techniques as a means of typing monoclonal immunoglobulins.

The four main methods in reforming law are repeal (get rid of a law), creation of new law, consolidation (change existing law) and codification.

Existent may not be exactly “snooty,” but it is more often used in discussions of spiritual or philosophical matters than in talking about day-to-day activities:

It is commonly accepted that there are two sorts of existent entities: those that exist but could have failed to exist, and those that could not have failed to exist. Entities of the first sort are contingent beings; entities of the second sort are necessary beings.

Russell’s problem of the existent round square might then be reformulated as the problem of the existent-cum-modal-moment round square. 

One point on which there is agreement [about Existentialist thought] is that the existence with which we should be concerned here is not just any existent thing, but human existence.

When speaking of a health condition that is in existence at the time someone applies for health insurance, the usual term is “pre-existing condition.”

There is a word pre-existent, but like existent, it appears mostly in religious and philosophical writing. For example:

According to Baha’i teachings, the individual soul of a human being comes into being at the time of conception and only thereafter is eternal; in other words it is not pre-existent. [They also teach] that God, a reality which human consciousness cannot comprehend, is pre-existent, that is He exists prior to time and to His creation.

Arius (c. 256-336 CE) believed that the pre-existent Son of God was directly created by the Father, that he was subordinate to God the Father, and that only the Father was without beginning or end, but that the Son was also divine.

The word nonexistent, on the other hand, is quite common in ordinary speech:

 Cops Arrest Photographer for Nonexistent Law

They [job applicants] bought a bachelor of science degree in biology, dated June 13, 1975, and a master’s degree dated June 10, 1988, in Collins’ name – both from Lexington University, a nonexistent school purportedly in Middletown, N.Y.

Speakers and writers who replace existing with existent in a non-philosophical context may be creating a back-formation from nonexistent.

In standard usage, it’s still best to use existing to refer to such things as laws, customers, and systems, reserving existent for philosophical discussion.

The adjective extant, “continuing to exist,” is used to describe artifacts or structures that have survived beyond the time other things like them have disappeared. Here are two examples of this use:

The only extant copy of Clarke’s 1619 broadsheet can be found in the British Library.
The Yambol Covered Bazaar is the only such Ottoman institution still extant in Bulgaria.

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1 Response to “Existent vs. Existing”

  • Ed Phillips

    The redundant use of the prefix “pre-” is one of my pet peeves. Two increasingly common examples (each of which sets my teeth on edge) are the mentioned “pre-existing” and “pre-boarding”, commonly used just before departure at airports’ gates.
    “Pre” adds nothing to the meaning of these words, and is as redundant as the word “time” when following the word “current” or “present”.

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