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Consider the following variant sentences:

Colloquia and seminars both happen in an academic setting.


Colloquia and seminars both occur in an academic setting.

Using happen to describe ongoing events often sounds very wrong to my ear -- I usually prefer occur or some such variant, but I have no idea why that preference should be justified. Is using occur (or something like that) actually better here, or am I being overly pedantic? I'd love an explanation.

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I have the same reaction; it just doesn't sound right. "Things happen for a reason" or "why did that happen" is fine, though. Maybe because "happen" seems to associate well with an indefinite thing, but not a particular one? – mfe Apr 13 '11 at 21:58
Hmph. I have exactly the same reaction, but was blissfully unaware of it until you pointed it out. Now I'm all bothered by this newfound pet peeve. Thanks a lot. Hmph. – Marthaª Apr 13 '11 at 22:14
Add me to the list. There is also something a bit too informal about this use of "happen", but I can't quite put my finger on it either. – Cerberus Apr 16 '11 at 0:09
I’m exactly the opposite. Formal language irritates me. (Unless it’s got class, I guess.) So I prefer plain off to in the off position, nothing I know of over nothing of which I am aware, can’t over cannot, and happen over occur. – Jason Orendorff Apr 16 '11 at 0:35
@JasonOrendorf: The problem with formality is that you've got to get it exactly right: it should be neither too formal nor too informal. If you mean by "plain" something exactly in the middle, then I think I agree. Luckily we have some leeway: most connotations of formality and informality are weak enough to be able to coexist within the same text. Some of your examples I never use; others I do use, depending on context. – Cerberus Apr 16 '11 at 17:02
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Occurs invokes the concept of a definite start or beginning. It sounds better to you because it usually gets at a more precise meaning of the concept that you want to communicate (based on your examples).

"The sound always occurs at midnight."

Happens is very similar but does not invoke the concept of the events start or beginning.

"Stuff happens."

It is subtle, but happens would be more vague in the way that you used it.

Here is a quote that supports this:

Occur is more formal, and while it is generally fully interchangeable with happen, it may be more specific in implying the time or action of an event.

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It strikes me to be a formal/informal distinction – I would not describe a scientific phenomenon as happening, but as occurring.

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"Happen" has an accidental context. "Occur" does not.

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I thought they were synonyms, and they are (if you look up "happen", occur will be the first synonym in the list), but they seem to have some subtle differences in meaning and usage.

I'll paste what the dictionary says:

When things happen, they come to pass either for a reason or by chance (it happened the day after school started; she happened upon the scene of the accident), but the verb is more frequently associated with chance (it happened to be raining when we got there).

Occur can also refer either to something that comes to pass either accidentally or as planned, but it should be used interchangeably with happen only when the subject is a definite or actual event (the tragedy occurred last winter).

Unlike happen, occur also carries the implication of something that presents itself to sight or mind (it never occurred to me that he was lying).

Then it adds other synonyms:

Transpire is a more formal (and some would say undesirable) word meaning to happen or occur, and it conveys the sense that something has leaked out or become known (he told her exactly what had transpired while she was away).

While things that happen, occur, or transpire can be either positive or negative, when something befalls it is usually unpleasant (he had no inkling of the disaster that would befall him when he got home).

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There is not just a dictionary. ;-) – kiamlaluno Apr 14 '11 at 2:16
@kiamlaluno, there is also a thesaurus. – Sam Apr 16 '11 at 6:16

I suspect that it is because "occur" sounds fancier to you. In the example given, either would do.

If you want your writing to be accessible to the broadest audience, "happen" is probably better. If you are writing for an audience with the same prejudices as you, "occur" will be better.

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Happen and occur are both fine here. Occur is formal. It is much better than happen when the event is something you’re studying; it signals a neutral, objective attitude toward the event itself. (Also, only events happen; physical things can occur, as in 60% of tropical peat-lands occur in Southeast Asia.)

Happen is informal. Sometimes it means “occur, and you just have to live with it”, as in accidents happen. Followed by to and a verb, it indicates a coincidence: happens to fall on a Friday this year. A whiff of those connotations can taint other uses: if I were to say, “Sometimes wrongful convictions happen,” it might sound fine to you; or you might be taken aback by my blasé attitude.

In your example, unless the context is formal, I would use take place.

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"Happens" is a terrible word. It's mostly used in two situations:

  • When you are hinting that you are above some consideration that other people, less enlightened than you, show an unhealthy interest in or unwise prejudice against: "Her husband, who happens to be black, ..."

  • When you can't thing of a more exciting word to mark some occasion or event: "The party happened last night."

The saving grace of words like "transpire" and "occur" is that they emphasize that the only thing important (or at least relevant at the moment) about the event is that it did, in fact, occur. Was it fun? Was it necessary? Don't care right now, we're just talking about the fact it happened.

When did I know that The Happening was going to be the worst yet in the ever-declining series of bad M. Night Shyamalan movies? When I saw the title.

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Ooh, dinged. Probably some pissed-off Last Airbender fan... – Malvolio Apr 16 '11 at 0:23
-1 because I don’t think any of this is correct. Happens to be is common but still represents something like 3% of uses of happen, according to COCA. The rest do not show any sign of someone having tried and failed to “thing of a more exciting word”. In fact, the word happen can be surprisingly compelling: Something really catastrophic—something culture-ending—happened there. – Jason Orendorff Apr 16 '11 at 0:31
Heh, not a big Airbender fan here, just generally a dork. :) – Jason Orendorff Apr 16 '11 at 0:32
3%! You mean almost one time out of 30 when someone writes the word "happen", he's doing it to be a d-bag? When you consider the plural and spoken use, it probably has a worse ratio than the n-word. – Malvolio Apr 16 '11 at 2:51
No, most uses of happen to be are innocent: annual Fourth of July barbecue, which this year happened to be on a Friday. – Jason Orendorff Apr 16 '11 at 7:30

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