Happen vs. Occur
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reaction to these ads was that more precise synonyms for happen had gone the way of pallor, a once common word that’s been replaced by paleness.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
- crop up
- present itself
- come to pass
- turn out
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