Help me to assist you

One of the hallmarks of formal writing in English seems to be that it uses Latin words even where there is an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) synonym; in fact, changing Latin words to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents is one of the tools in the ‘paramedic method’ of editing. The push to plain(er) language in business and science writing means that we’re seeing much less of ‘annum’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘employment’ and more of ‘year’, ‘enough’ and ‘work’.

But it seems that ‘assist’ is really hanging in there. Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘to give support, help, or aid to in some undertaking or effort, or in time of distress.’ The Anglo-Saxon equivalent ‘help’ is defined as ‘to cooperate effectively with a person; aid; assist’. They definitely mean the same thing.

Yet I almost never see ‘help’ in the reports I edit, whereas ‘assist’ is very common. There seems to be reluctance by writers to use the more direct word, as if perhaps the Latin word keeps a polite distance and an assumption of equality between the giver and recipient of the aid. This view seems to be borne out in other articles I found, such as this from a coaching company (they did not link to their source of this definition):

When we give or offer to ‘help’ someone, we are generally working from the assumption that the person in question is unable to resolve their own problems. We may take on the solution to the problem when we offer help … On the other hand, when we make ourselves available to ‘assist’ another person, they continue to own the project, goal, or problem – we simply make ourselves available as an additional resource that they can make use of along the way.

and this from a business communication site:

In a strict sense, ‘assistance’ implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that ‘help’ does not … Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).

Macquarie Dictionary does not make this distinction; nor does Oxford Dictionaries. That description from Webster’s given in the quote above isn’t online anywhere (but that’s not to say it isn’t in a paper copy), and the standard Webster’s online dictionary doesn’t say anything about subordination being part of the meaning of ‘assist’. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says that ‘assist is a formal word, and means to help someone by doing part of the work for them, especially the things that are not very important’, but this still doesn’t say anything about whether ‘help’ assumes helplessness of the recipient or a patronising attitude of the helper.

Is this a word undergoing meaning shift? Or is it just that people feel they should use the more formal word in more formal contexts? In this case, the message is clear with ‘help’. ‘Assist’ doesn’t add anything that ‘help’ doesn’t already have. No need, however, for ‘help assist’, as in this, from George Bush in January 1990: ‘I informed President Endara that we’d arrived at an economic assistance package to help assist Panama in its economic recovery.’ That’s just too much.

Thanks to Pleated Jeans for the image, which originally came from Izifunny, and probably from somewhere else before that.
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One Response to Help me to assist you

  1. aletifer says:

    I think the answer lies more in language history than anything else. Latinate vocabularies are the realm of science and formal learning, and it’s been that way since Europe’s monastic period. Businessfolk have latched on to that; they understand enough about language to see that latinate words imply authority and credibility. That’s why they prefer “assist” to “help”; they think it sounds more official and formal.

    But the Old English equivalent of “help” was “helpan,” which meant adding your own actions or efforts to another’s to make the combined work more effectual. The definition and etymology have nothing to do with implying inferiority or inability; that’s a misconception that stems from not understanding your own vocabulary preferences.

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