Prevaricate vs Procrastinate

By Ali Hale

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Two commonly confused words are prevaricate and procrastinate. They are similar in being quite formal, Latinate, words but have different meanings.

Prevaricate means “to deviate from the truth” (Merriam-Webster). It is not quite so strong as “lie” but implies an intention to mislead.

It is often, but not exclusively, used in reference to politicians:

  • “It is one of the known indications of guilt to stagger and prevaricate in a story.” (Edmund Burke)
  • “McCain will sometimes surrender to the cheap ploy or prevarication when the moment demands it, but it is often with a smirk or a wince, some hard-to-miss signal that he knows he’s up to no good.” (Matt Bai, The McCain Doctrines in the New York Times)

Procrastinate means “to put off intentionally and habitually” (Merriam-Webster). The term is often used in advice on time management or self-improvement, and can also be a noun (“procrastination”). People who habitually procrastinate are “procrastinators”.

  • “Everyone experiences the desire to procrastinate. For one reason or another, nothing is harder than doing the one task that needs to get done.” (From How to procrastinate more productively)
  • “Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time.” (From Why We Procrastinate in Psychology Today)

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11 Responses to “Prevaricate vs Procrastinate”

  • Charlie

    Wow! I can’t imagine mixing these two words up!

  • joe

    i cant think of one time anyone mixed these words up

  • Ali

    I too wouldn’t mix them up, but it came up at a recent writing conference I attended. And if you google “prevaricate procrastinate” you’ll see a number of blog and forum posts talking about the distinction, so I thought it was worth writing the article in case this is a problem for any Daily Writing Tips readers.

    Good to know you both have excellent vocabularies, Charlie & Joe!

  • Charlie

    The world of words can be wonderful, wacky and witty . . . wheee . .

  • lawyerjourno

    That was an excellent exposition of language skills in terms of vocabulary. Can you tell me what are other methods to disitinguish the use of correct and incorrect word in our writing. Is there any methedology to do so. WHat should we opt for…for connotational meaning or denotational meaning of a particular word.

  • ccn

    The above article is correct if we’re discussing US English. In UK English, the primary meeting of ‘prevaricate’ is ‘To behave evasively or indecisively so as to delay action; to procrastinate’ (OED).

  • CK

    Alistair McCall Smith confuses “prevaricate” and “procrastinate” in his latest Isabel Dalhousie novel.

  • Ccp

    I agree with ccn. The definitions cited in this article do not cover prevaricate as I use it; subtly differentiated from procrastinate.

    procrastinate: to delay, to waste time, avoiding doing *that*.
    prevaricate: to delay decision/action by straddling several different possibilities without having yet committed to any one in particular (a kind of procrastination about making a commitment).

    – my personal use. not dictionary defined, but I believe it to be correct.

  • Carmen

    I have never heard anyone in the US mix up these two words. However, since moving to the UK, literally everyone I know here says “prevaricate” when they mean “procrastinate.” No exaggeration.

  • vicky

    My fellow recently dumped me because he couldnt stand me in that t i wasnt true to my self and speaking my mind. Sure I sit on the fence and try to be uncommital to any aprticular point to keep the piece especially when he thinks he is right and I cant be bothered arguing .

    Help me people is this provaricateing?

    He told me to try and say no ifs and buts for a month- please explain how this relates?

  • Jane

    From a traditional English family: one really must be in a state of prevarocating in order to achieve procrastination. I feel that the protestant foundations of the US give a propensity to deviate towards the absolute literal from the older English understanding. Without the lies one speaks to one’s self we would not deviate from the action. Prevarocation and procrastination are therefore ugly sisters always destined to travel hand in hand and familiarity with that notion allows the casual flip of annunciation in the sure understanding of the listener’s correct interpretation.

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