Q&A: Envisage vs envision

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we envisage an envision quest…

Q: Hey AWC, can you explain the difference between “envisage” and “envision” please?

A: You’ll score slightly more in Scrabble for the first one.

Q: Wow, so helpful. Can we try harder?

A: Yes we can. It’s actually a good question – because they’re often used interchangeably despite a few key differences.

Q: I have key differences. My house key is blue, garage key is gold, dungeon key is red, shed k—

A: Hang on, WHAT key is red?

Q: I’ve said too much already. Please continue.

A: Um okay. So, let’s start with the similarities. Both words mean to “visualise” the future – but it’s WHAT they visualise that defines each word.

Q: Okay.

A: So “envisage” has its feet firmly planted on the ground. When you envisage something, it’s usually something tangible that you’re predicting or contemplating, based in some veneer of evidence or existence. It’s a calculated prediction of sorts.

Q: Example?

A: A politician might envisage the light rail project being operational in 12 months.

Q: Pffft 12 months? Can’t see that happening.

A: It was hypothetical.

Q: Oh yes. Sorry, please continue.

A: Another example might be to envisage what your new website will look like or an expert who doesn’t envisage significant growth in the steel industry in the next 3 years.

Q: Pffft doesn’t predict growth?

A: Again. Hypothetical.

Q: Oh yes. So, what about “envision” then?

A: “Envision” is the dreamer, letting its imagination run wild. So you might envision a world where fairy floss is harvested like cotton or envision a giant network of fast trains connecting all of Australia. You might even envision a movie starring all the living US presidents scaling Mt Rushmore after a bank heist goes wrong. All idealistic and more hopeful than based on any assessment.

Q: So to “envisage” is to anticipate or contemplate?

A: Yes. About something real.

Q: And “envision” is to imagine or mentally picture anything?

A: That’s it. The lines can get blurry, but if you want to deal in tangible things rather than pie-in-the-sky ideas, then act your AGE by using “envisAGE”…

Q: Good tip. A shame though, as one of my ideas was literally to have pie available in the sky. Oh well.

A: You can still envision a future where that happens. Just don’t start “envisaging” it until you have your fleet of drones ready to go.

Q: Haha. Okay. So, what’s the history with these two words?

A: Well, aptly the -AGE one is older – “envisage” coming to English from French in the 1820s. Meanwhile, the word “envision” didn’t turn up for another 100 years. Throughout most of the 20th century, “envisage” was the word of choice, but something odd happened around the ’60s and ’70s.

Q: Oh yes, my parents are always telling me stories.

A: Haha, okay, to be more specific. In America, usage of “envision” started overtaking “envisage” to the point where now it’s far more common in the US and gaining ground in the rest of the world.

Q: When you say favouring one word or the other, we’ve just discussed how they’re not really identical in their meanings. So shouldn’t people be using both?

A: Yes they should. And a savvy writer will do precisely that. It’s just an interesting quirk that the rise of “envision” to cover all the bases is definitely a growing trend.

Q: I guess I could rewrite my sentences to use synonyms and avoid this mess altogether.

A: You could. But we envisage an emptier world of literature without these words.

Q: Good point. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get some locks changed.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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