Advocacy, and a lawyer in the salad bowl

Do-good groups surrender something when they let themselves be described as "advocating for" the policies they promote.

It was a brief exchange with a colleague in the corridor the other day. The "inward creep" of a new usage is bugging him: "advocating for" something, rather than just plain "advocating." What's going on there?

Hmm. I've noticed it, too.

A recent article in The Baltimore Sun mentioned "the Community Law Center, a Baltimore nonprofit that advocates for legal reform."

The San Francisco Chronicle referred recently to "Project Inform, a nonprofit that advocates for people with HIV."

Recently, USA Today mentioned the United States Association of Blind Athletes, which "has helped train blind athletes for more than 30 years and advocates for them to be allowed to compete with sighted people."

The difference between "advocating for" something and simply "advocating" it is, from a grammatical perspective, the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb. "He hit the nail on the head." The subject (doer) of a transitive verb acts upon a direct object.

Not so the subject of an intransitive verb. Compare: She sings beautifully. No object. But: She sings folk songs.

Or another example: "He swung at the pitch" (intransitive, and probably a strike) versus "He knocked the ball out of the park." The transitive use seems inherently more forceful.

When advocate is used transitively, the object it takes is generally a specific idea or course of action: "She advocates a flat tax." "He advocates lowering interest rates immediately."

Advocating for, however, sounds more generic. Absent an object, the emphasis is on the activity, rather than, dare I say, any actual results.

The Baltimore group probably has a lot on its agenda, but I'll guess that "law reform" isn't just one specific idea it's pushing.

I understand why an organization would rather describe itself as an advocacy group than, say, a lobbying group. "Advocacy" is rooted in the language of law and the pursuit of justice. "Lobby" reeks of smoke-filled rooms. In fact, the original smoke-filled room was very likely a real lobby. And advocacy sounds more dignified than activism. (The Economist even has the effrontery to use the term "pressure groups" in this context – even to refer to outfits like the International Crisis Group and Reporters Without Borders.)

And as a noun, advocate fits quite neatly with for – "they are advocates for the poor." "They are advocates for the homeless." To be "an advocate of" someone or something is a little different meaning.

But the sentence above about the blind athletes' group, for instance, would have been better, and simpler, had it said the group "advocates allowing them to compete with sighted people." In this verb usage, "to advocate for" surrenders something of directness and forcefulness. Groups wanting to be a strong voice in the marketplace of ideas should consider whether this best serves their purposes.

This is a digression, but I can't resist: If you're wondering whether there's a connection between "advocate" and its kin in other languages, on one hand, and the pear-shaped green fruit ripening on the kitchen counter, the answer is yes.

The avocado is a New World fruit, known by its Aztec name as ahuacatl. It first became known in Spanish as aguacate, an adaptation of the Indian name. But this sounded so much like the Spanish word for lawyer – avocado – that that's how people understood it. For instance, "Will you hand me that lawyer in the fruit bowl? I want to slice it up and put it into the salad."

Avocado spread from Spanish into other European languages. The Spanish word for lawyer has since morphed into abogado. But in modern French, the same word – avocat – refers to either the green fruit or a (male) lawyer.

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