Happen vs. Occur

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Anyone who watches U.S. television has seen the pharmaceutical ads that feature deliriously happy healthy-looking people frolicking with pets and loved ones as a Voice Over enumerates the serious side effects that can “happen” if they ingest the product being advertised.

My initial reaction to these ads was that more precise synonyms for happen had gone the way of pallor, a once common word that’s been replaced by paleness. After all, advertisers must simplify language for the masses.

Now, however, I believe that the repeated use of happen in ads for medications is a deliberate choice meant to distance the products advertised from the grim possibilities listed in the warnings.

Consider the different connotations of the following statements:

Severe bleeding or death may happen.
Severe bleeding or death may occur.
Severe bleeding or death may result.

There’s not a lot of difference between happen and occur, but–thanks to the expression “Stuff happens,” happen is closely associated with blind chance. Things that “happen” can’t really be anticipated or guarded against.

Occur is a bit more definite, even in pharmaspeak, as in this warning on a bottle of niacin: “Discontinue use and consult your doctor if any adverse reactions occur.”

Result is altogether too definite a word as it means “to arise as a consequence, effect, or outcome of some action, process, or design.”

For variety in your own writing, here are a few other ways to convey the idea of “happening”:

  • take place
  • come about
  • follow
  • appear
  • develop
  • arise
  • ensue
  • crop up
  • transpire
  • materialize
  • present itself
  • come to pass
  • eventuate
  • turn out
  • befall

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2 thoughts on “Happen vs. Occur”

  1. Since the advent of the Internet, the Wikipedia, etc., I have noticed that many writers from the British Isles do not like short and simple phrases like “take place”, “crop up”, and “turn up”.

    They prefer polysyllabic expressions like “precipitate”, “eventuate”, and “ensue subsequently”. The more syllables the better seems to be the rule-of-thumb.

    I am just mentioning this to help keep American and Canadian writers aware of the North American practice of keeping their verbs short and sweet whenever possible. There isn’t any need to copy the British ways slavishly.

    I have a theory about the American practice of combining short verbs with prepositions. I believe that this cropped up because of the influence of millions and millions of German-speaking immigrants here, and in German the combination of verb and preposition or verb plus adverb are quite common.

    Here are some examples in English, just using the verb “to throw”:
    throwback, throw in, throw off, throw out, throw up. These are where the prepositional phrase is not necessarily the beginning of a prepositional phrase.

    By the way, some British writers have objected to the phrase “off of”. They just need to face up to the fact that this is commonly used in North American English. “Throw the rat off of the train!”

  2. @Dale RE: “noticed that many writers from the British Isles … ”
    “…isn’t any need to copy the British ways slavishly”

    All three of those examples are fairly common in British English, so far as I can recall, and I spent 26 years there.

    I think more than anything the style of English you have picked up on says more about the kinds of British people that become writers or, even more probably, the kinds of British writers that your specific interests and work exposes you to. Considering you’re writing a comment on a site about writing, the kinds of Brits you find here are probably also going to be of the more linguistically unforgiving kind that actually care about how to “be correct” in their writing. I’d suspect the advent of the internet has actually gone a good way towards reducing the proportion of such people.

    As for Wikipedia specifically, much of the content is academic, and I suspect the substitution of shorter (more colloquial) phrases with more formal ones (which also happen to tend to have more syllables) is a general feature of academic writing worldwide. (Certainly in the sciences such phrases tend to be avoided.)

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