Existent vs. Extant

background image 29

What’s the difference between existent and extant? It might be more appropriate to ask, what’s the difference between exists and “is extant”? Existent usually seems awkward to me; exists or “to exist” often seems more suitable. (Even a comparative sentence such as “Unicorns are just as existent as umbrellas” seems odd — and not just because of the subject matter; though the meaning is not exactly the same, I would instead write, “Unicorns are just as likely to exist as umbrellas.”)

The root word for both terms is exist, from the Latin term existere, which means “to emerge” or “to stand forth” (hence the ex- element, which means “out of” or “from”), as well as “appear” or “be.”

The adjective existent derives from the noun existence, which stems from the Latin term existentia, itself coming from existentem, which means — you guessed it, “existent.” (The second syllable, from sistere, which means “cause to stand,” is also found in assist and subsist and their variants.)

Synonyms include inherent (verb form inhere), from the Latin term inhaerere, “to stick in or to,” and the aforementioned subsist, which has a connotation of minimal survival.

Several other words that include the root exist are coexist (“exist together” or “live together peacefully”) and preexist (“to exist beforehand”), as well as existential, which refers to a philosophy centering on the absence of certainty about morality, which has overshadowed the generic meanings of “grounded in existence” or “relating to existence.” And then there’s the unfortunately obsolete existimation, a synonym for esteem or estimation.

So, what about extant? Its Latin origin is extare, which means “stand out, be visible, exist,” but it has acquired a slightly different connotation — a more extended one — than existence: It means “in existence,” even “still in existence.” Thus, to say that something exists and to say that it is extant are two distinct statements.

What this means is that extant is appropriate for describing something that still remains or survives, though it is reasonable to assume that something might not do so. It’s employed usually in references to artifacts and documents, or to species and other categories of biological classification. Something that exists, by contrast, merely is.

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

9 thoughts on “Existent vs. Extant”

  1. Huh, never thought about it that way. Of course, my etymology is rusty so I am in awe of this bit here. It is good to know though, thank you for the tip on this little trip up here!

  2. Reminds me of a comedy sketch I once heard, questioning the word “pre-heated” (as referring to an oven), something along the lines of, “there are only two states an oven can be in: heated or not heated. What is PRE-heated?” Likewise (IMHO) with pre-existing. Something either is or isn’t. When I’m doing transcription and a surgeon dictates that she removed a “pre-existing scar,” I change it to “existing.” If it’s a scar, by definition in existed (was in existence, or even was extant) before the present surgical procedure. There seems to me to be no need for the prefix “pre.” In the case of the oven, you just have to turn it on and have it heat up to the desired temperature before placing the item in there to bake. So the directions on the cake-mix box could say, “Heat oven to 350.” Assuming this is accomplished (and the oven has reached 350), the next step is naturally to place the cake in there. So why do words like pre-heat and pre-exist, exist?

  3. Bluebird:

    You seem quite heated about the issue — and it appears you were preheated — but I agree with you.

  4. I always thought of extinct as the opposite of extant, but is this correct? I am however aware that to say ‘a document is extinct’ sounds odd.

  5. @Mark: Ah, Mark, there is nothing more annoying than an angry bird, eh?! No, I’m neither heated nor pre-heated 🙂 perhaps just, ummm, pre-opinionated LOL.

  6. “Pre” is used in many cases as a contracted form of “previous”. A ‘pre-owned’ car is technically a new car. A ‘previously owned’ car is exactly what was intended.

    It’s same with ‘heated’. A previously heated oven at 350F would be different from an over just set to 350F but has not yet reached that temperature. You mentioned ‘assuming this is accomplished’. But why assume? While the cook might claim the two states of an oven are heated or not, the physist would correct you to say that even at room temperature the oven is heated. My two states would be either steady-state or transitioning. Since there are recipes which call for placing the creation in a room-temp oven and set the oven to transition to a higher temperature, the need arises to resolve the difference between that case and the case where the oven has reached a higher than room temperature steady-state – where the oven is ‘already’ heated to X; or previously-heated.

    Since bakers and grandmothers everywhere seem to be able to follow these instructions without fail, I would say the language is completely clear.

  7. Sorry to disagree Mark B, but I’m with thebluebird on this one. In his post he states “heat the oven to 350” rather than “set to 350″…
    Sadly I own an oven that raises the heat at the RH side so until I can replace it my great British bake-off days are over.

  8. I read the above, and I will keep using “pre-“. It is a question of emphasis. If you are using “pre-existing”, you are emphasising time/time difference, if you are using “existing”, you are not.

    See, I just filled in a form of my new health insurance, and they use the term “pre-existing” health condition. By using “pre-existing” in their text, they mean to emphasize the fact that they are asking for health conditions “existing prior to” the commencement of the policy, not just “existing at the point” of commencement. They could just say “existing” but this subtle emphasis would be lost. For example, I have migraines every fortnight or so. At the point of signing the policy I do not have a migraine. I could rather truthfully say that I do not have an “existing” condition at the point of signing the policy. I could less truthfully say that I do not have a “pre-existing” condition. This is because the insurance made it clear to me, the reader, through their use of “pre-“, that there are not asking for the “at the point in time of signing the policy” but “prior to the point of signing the policy”. I think their use of “pre-” is justified.

    In short, “pre-” is a common and can be a useful syllabus. That is not to say that you could not express almost identical meanings without the “pre-” with some fiddling, but why would you want to do that? English is already a relatively poor language; I would not reduce it further. While “keep it simple stupid” is great for some things (design), “richness” is good for other, including language (and gene pool).

  9. I completely disagree with Mr Daniel. His existing (theoritical) condition is that he has migraines every fortnight or so (For example, I have migraines every fortnight or so). Whether he has migraine at the time of signing the policy is irrelevent because his existing (theoritical) condition is that he has migraines every fortnight or so. This emphasis on ‘pre-‘ appears to be gift of US English.
    However, English is not my mother tongue. My vote is for existing British English not pre-existing British English

Leave a Comment