Q&A: Recur vs reoccur

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're exploring recurring themes…

Q: Hi AWC, can you help me with a recurring problem?

A: We keep saying you need to speak to a healthcare professional…

Q: No silly – I want to know the difference between “recurring” and “reoccurring”. Is there one?

A: Ah, okay. Take a seat.

Q: I’m already sitting.

A: So you are. The two verbs “recur” and “reoccur” sound very similar and mean similar things, but mercifully, there is a difference. And some controversy.

Q: Controversy?

A: We’ll get to that later. First, let’s put on our superhero capes and explore the origin stories of these words.

Q: Let me guess. Latin?

A: Ten points for Gryffindor! The Latin “recurrere” – meaning “to run back or return” – was the origin of the 14th century arrival of “recur”. Initially it meant to recover from an illness (they were having a lot of those in the 1300s), but by the 15th century it meant to return to some place.

Q: Well that’s not really what it means today.

A: That’s right. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that “recur” came to finally relate to something happening again.

Q: And what about “reoccur”?

A: Well, it shares the same origin – albeit in a back to front way.

Q: How do you mean?

A: It came from “occur” – which appeared on the scene in the 1520s, from a similar Latin “occurrere” – meaning “to run to meet” or “present itself”. Effectively, it was all about something happening. Although “reoccur” didn’t happen as a word until 1803.

Q: So “currere” is “to run” in Latin?

A: Yes, and a lot of current words came from it – including “current”! Others are “recourse”, “currency”, “cursor”, “excursion”, “concur” and “courier”.

Q: So what exactly IS the difference between the two words?

A: Both broadly relate to something “happening again”, however there is a subtle difference in usage. To “recur” is all about the running – i.e., the continuation of something. An example might be a “recurring dream” you have every night. An actor getting a “recurring role” on a TV show or “recurring symptoms” from a disease. It is regular repetition.

Q: How does that differ from “reoccur”?

A: Well, “reoccur” is all about something happening again. It doesn’t have to have been regular, just that it will occur again at some point. An example of this might be a sporting injury that may “reoccur” in the future. Or a natural disaster that could reoccur.

Q: That’s a fairly subtle difference.

A: Well you didn’t ask for the difference between “recur” and “helicopter”.

Q: Haha. I just mean that it’s tricky to know which to use.

A: Not really. Something with frequent repetition is said to “recur” while something that simply happens again – without any pattern – would “reoccur”.

Q: Do you have more examples?

A:  Sure. “We hope this pandemic doesn’t reoccur in the future. If it does, the government may need to provide recurring payments again.”

Q: Okay, you mentioned a controversy?

A: Ah yes. Well, it turns out that not everyone approves of the use of “reoccur” – including Australia’s own Macquarie Dictionary

Q: Shocking!

A: Indeed. The naysayers are just fine with “recur” doing the job for both words, regardless of context. Most of the rest of the world DO recognise “reoccur”, yet if you’d rather not use it (and using “recur” doesn’t sit right), just replace it with “happen again”. That should work in 90% of cases.

Q: Maybe there should be a recurring warning for users of the English language: “Use at your own risk. May contain traces of pedants.”

A: Haha, true. You can definitely do much worse than to use “reoccur” – it’s listed in most dictionaries. 

Q: Well thanks for the explanation. That’s enough for today, so like the Latin folk used to say, tempus currere – time to run!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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