Proof and Prove

By Mark Nichol

The following words are related to each other and to words based on the element prob-, seen in a number of words ranging from probe to probable and derived from the Latin verb probare, meaning “demonstrate” or “test.”

The noun proof refers to evidence or something that makes an assertion certain or valid. It also applies to a test of an object or substance to evaluate its quality. The term also pertains to the alcoholic strength of a beverage, to a special collector’s issue of a coin (but originally in reference to coin production as a test run), to a test impression or print, or to typeset material produced for correction before a final version is published. As a verb, proof refers to activating yeast, strengthening something, or correcting text; proofread is an alternative to describe the last action, the activity is called proofreading, and one who proofreads is a proofreader. The word functions as an adjective in references to resistance (for example, “Education is intended to be proof against ignorance”), which is condensed in compounds such as foolproof.

Prove (by way of the Old French verb prueve) means “check,” “test,” or “verify,” or “show that one is capable or worthy.” The past tense is rendered as either proved or proven, and the adjectival and adverbial forms are provable (or proven or, rarely, proved), and provably, while one who proves is a prover, and the quality of being provable is provableness. Other than the past-tense forms and the adjectival form provable, these words are not common.

Approve (by way of the old French verb aprover) originally was simply a variant of prove, but it later developed the sense of “agree to,” “allow,” or “sanction.” The action is approval or, more formally, approbation; the noun approver, the verb approbate, and the adjective approbatory are all rare.

To reprove is to censure, correct, or scold; the action is reproof. One who reproves is a reprove (though that usage is rare), and one may be described as scolding reprovingly. These words stem from the Anglo-French verb reprover and ultimately derive from the Latin verb reprobare, the source of reprobate. (The family of related words that retain the prob- element are discussed in this post.)

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15 Responses to “Proof and Prove”

  • John

    An old language professor of mine — they’re all old since I am now also old — told us that “the exception proves the rule” originally meant that the exception tests the rule, i.e., calls it into question. Only in later times was it construed to mean that the exception verifies the rule. If you think about it, the modern meaning of that expression makes no sense.

  • ApK

    @John, that’s interesting, and makes a lot of sense. But if I wanted to contrive something that made sense so that I could live with the modern interpretation, I would say that in the modern sense, finding an occasional, distinct, exception, helps to prove that the rule applies in general, and only special cases violate it, as opposed to, say, “starve a cold, feed a fever” which is violated in roughly 50% of cases, proving it to be merely and old-wives-tale and not a rule at all.

    ‘The word functions as an adjective in references to resistance (for example, “Education is intended to be proof against ignorance”)’

    Isn’t proof a noun in that usage? Like “defense against ignorance” or “protection against ignorance?”

  • ApK

    …or, indeed “resistance against ignorance” to use your own word?

  • Tim Slager

    “…correcting text; proofread is an alternative to describe the last action…”
    I suspect that proofread is the original form and proof is an abbreviated version. To proofread is to read proofs, making sure that the typesetter included all of the copyeditor’s corrections. It is more a matter of confirming corrections were implemented than “correcting text.”
    That said, proofing (as well as proofreading) has also become a synonym for copyediting—now that typesetting is a thing of the past.

  • venqax

    So, the noun for the quality of being provable is not provability, but provableness? Interesting and mysterious, given that provable and provably are such common words, and provableness is so horridly clumsy.

  • Mark Nichol

    My definition of proofreading is a simplification, but to clarify, proofing does not constitute verifying that copyediting revisions were made to a manuscript; the initial proofreading stage involves reading and looking at the proof and marking content and format errors. A (one hopes) final proof is then checked against the marked-up version to confirm that corrections have been made and no new errors have been introduced. As you noted, the distinction has been blurred—I have worked on many editing projects in which I copyedit the proof rather than the manuscript. Clients or employers may consider editing of a printed-out proof an expeditious shortcut, but it can be inefficient if, as is often the case, more than a modicum of revision is required: Marking up a printed-out proof that requires heavy revision can soon result in a mess. However, editing within a proof file rather than in a Word document is an inconsequential difference. (One disadvantage is that a substantial deletion or insertion, rewording that changes the line count, or a shift in location of a sentence or paragraph may throw off the text flow, leaving excessive space or making the text run off the page.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol” “The word functions as an adjective in references to resistance (for example, “Education is intended to be proof against ignorance”),
    In this sentence “proof” is a noun and it doesn’t have anything to do with adjectives.
    On the other hand, these compound words ARE adjectives:
    bombproof, bulletproof, bugproof, fireproof, ratproof, rustproof, ratproof, rabbitproof, dingoproof, rodentproof, verminproof, and shockproof.

  • Mark Nichol

    I, too, wondered about the adjectival label for proof, which is according to Merriam-Webster.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The German verb “proben” is very close to the Latin verb “probare” and the noun “die Probe”, because “proben” means to “test” or to “check”. In some cases, the German language uses a significant set of different verbs rather than just one or two like we do, and another one in this set is “prüfen” (prufen with an umlaut) for some of the meanings of “to test” such as to “inspect” or to “examine”.
    So “proben” does not really mean to probe something like sticking a thermometer into bodily openings, and “prüfen” does not mean to “prove” anything. To confuse matters even more, there is the foreign loan word “kontrollieren” that does not mean to “control”, but rather to “inspect”, to “monitor”, or even to “check”.
    Also, there are lots of other German verbs that are made by putting prefixes and suffixes onto other verbs, or even nouns, such as “überwachen” and “beobachten”.
    Those Germans LOVE their prefixes and suffixes on verbs, and there are a hundred of them, and also some verbs are in regional use and some in national use. The permutations and combinations are astounding.

  • Dale A. Wood

    When it comes to living in various parts of the world, you would like to have a dwelling or accommodations that are fireproof, bulletproof, verminproof, bugproof, ratproof, and/or rodentproof. “Vermin” also includes scorpions, spiders, snakes, salamanders….”
    “Bugproof” has an entirely different meaning, such as in “The American ambassador and his assistants in Moscow live in bugproof houses and dachas.” They might say, “I don’t like spiders, snakes, or rodents,” but what they really don’t like is having their confidential conversations listened to!”

  • Dale A. Wood

    For a long, long time they had serious problems in Australia about European rabbits that had been introduced by the white people. They “multiplied like rabbits”, and ate valuable crops, pastures, and native plants, and they had few predators because Australia does not have wolves, coyotes, cougars, wildcats, foxes, and such efficient killers and eaters.
    Thus the national and state governments had to band together to built fences that ran for thousands of miles to try to stop the spread of rabbits and to shut them into smaller areas so that they could be hunted down, trapped, and poisoned.
    Those fences had to be both rabbitproof and dingoproof, because otherwise, the dingoes would tunnel under the fences or tear holes in them, letting the rabbits get through, too. Dingoes eat rabbits, too, but not enough of them. There are domestic dingoes and feral dingoes, too.
    So there is some historical background behind the funny cartoons about “Bugs Bunny” and the “Tasmanian Devil”, but Tasmania was not the place that had the big problems with rabbits. Rabbits were a big problem in the agricultural an ranching areas of the mainland: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, and the was where the LONG rabbitproof and dingoproof fences were, and might still remain.

  • Dale A. Wood

    By the way, Iearned a lot about German and peculiar problems about it from a book by a Professor of German at the University of Sydney, in New South Wales. In Australia, German was not only useful for diplomatic purposes, but also useful because Australia was at war with Germany and Austria during WW I and WW II, and Australia and West Germany were also allies of a kind during the Cold War. (Australia was allied with the United States, Canada, and Britain, and in turn all of these were allied with West Germany via NATO.)
    “The friend of my friend is my friend,” as it says.
    During WW I and WW II, Australian soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought against the Germans in France, Greece, North Africa; on the waters of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and a small part of the Pacific. There were some German U-boats that embarked to Japanese-held bases in Indonesia so that they could hunt shipping around Australia, New Zealand, and India (British territory).
    As for Aussie airmen, some of them fought the Luftwaffe from bases in England, and others fought the Luftwaffe from Greece, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
    During 1942 and 43, most of the Aussies were called back home to fight the Japanese! The Japanese Navy was a big threat, and Japanese bombers were even bombing northern Australia from bases on the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and from aircraft carriers – but before that, Aussies were fighting against Field Marshall Rommel and the Afrika Korps in Egypt and Libya.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I don’t want to omit the adjectives “waterproof”, “mosquito-proof”, “brainwashing-proof”, and “propaganda-proof” either. “Commie-proof” and “treason-proof” would be a slang expressions, too,

  • Dale A. Wood

    The verbs “überwachen” and “beobachten” are cognates to the English verbs “watch over” and “observe”. The “be” is just a common German prefix, nearly as common as “ver”, whose meaning has become very different from “very”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The verb “to prove” as meaning “to test” comes into play in the names of certain military lands in the United States, e.g.
    the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland,
    the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah (where chemical weapons used to be tested out),
    the vast Yuma Proving Ground for the U.S. Army in southwestern Arizona.

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