Quest and Pursuit

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,
 

What’s the difference between ‘Quest’ and ‘Pursuit’?  Under which situation their usage should be preferred. Please offer some examples.

  
On one level, the words are synonyms:
 

The congressman himself has been fascinatingly silent in pursuit of the nomination.
 
He had resigned his ambassadorship to return home in quest of the nomination.

 
However, the words differ in connotation. In the first example given above, pursuit lacks emotional force. The use of quest in the second sentence implies that the nomination is something the ambassador strongly desires and that he is willing to endure great suffering in order to obtain it.
 
In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory and other authors used quest to refer to the noble undertaking of a knight. The knight’s quest might be the rescue of a maiden or the killing of a giant. In Arthurian romance, quest was often associated with the search for the ultimate prize, the Holy Grail. Because of the lingering association with the Grail of Jesus, quest retains a loftier connotation than pursuit.
 
The word quest can also refer to the particular type of narrative described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Examples of the “quest story” are Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Star Wars. Here’s Campbell’s definition:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

 
Pursuit, on the other hand, refers to the action of chasing something.
 
In early use (1387), the purpose of a pursuit was to overtake and capture, harm, or kill the thing being chased. Later, the word acquired the more general sense of simply following or chasing something, not necessarily with the intention to do it harm.
 
In colloquial speech, we all use quest in contexts that do not involve adventure or the good of our fellow man. Here are typically extravagant uses of quest in mundane contexts:
 

Yesterday, I went on a quest for a pair of pants that fit. 
 
Growing the perfect tomato is a quest for many gardeners.
 
These theaters in Atlanta lend an epic element to any cinematic night out or quest for summer blockbuster viewing.

 
Epic is frequently found in the company of the already strong word quest:
 

Jon Stewart goes on epic quest with a red balloon to prove Dick Cheney wrong on Iran
 
One female veteran’s epic quest for a ‘foot that fits’
 
The Greenville Public Schools Board of Education is embarking on an epic quest to find a new superintendent.
 
I’m home from my first epic quest adventure. [a restaurant tour]

 
Preposition use with quest and pursuit can be tricky.

One goes “in quest of justice,” for example, but one is “on a quest for justice.” Police go “in pursuit of a criminal,” but they could find themselves “in pursuit for hours.”

Pursuit conveys chasing, searching, or desiring. Quest implies courage, hardship, and altruism.

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