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To me, there is a difference between "vouch" and "guarantee".

To vouch for someone, you are stating that because of your relationship, you have knowledge that their character is good. However, I think if I introduce you to someone and vouch for them, I am leaving open the possibility that you and that person might not get along for whatever reason.

To guarantee someone, to me, means that I am 100% assuring you of their future actions. So if I guarantee that my friend can fix guitars, and you go to him to have your guitar fixed, and he fails, I know you might come to me and be angry about it.

I believe vouching is about character, and guaranteeing is about actions. It's possible to vouch for someone's character without guaranteeing what they'll do, and it's possible to guarantee what a person might do without necessarily knowing their broader personality (for example, I might be able to guarantee the guy at the guitar shop always fixes guitars, but I don't hang out with him, so maybe he's a jerk.)

However, recently when trying to translate the concept of "vouch" into Japanese, it became apparent to me that some people do not make this distinction. The Japanese language itself does not distinguish between vouch and guarantee either. So it became unclear if my definition was a personal one.

Is there a difference, is it wide enough, and is it commonly accepted?

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2 Answers 2

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Notice that in your own examples, you vouched for a person, but guaranteed an action. This is exactly how I'd use these words, and it does seem to reinforce your intuition: "vouch" is about a person's character; "guarantee" is about actions or things. We might also say, however, that "guarantee" emphasizes the future, while "vouch" emphasizes the past. To explain my position, I'll call on the Oxford English Dictionary.

Guarantee

The OED lists the following meanings for the verb "guarantee":

  1. To be a guarantee, warrant, or surety for; spec. to undertake with respect to (a contract, the performance of a legal act, etc.) that it shall be duly carried out; to make oneself responsible for the genuineness of (an article); hence, to assure the existence or persistence of; to set on a secure basis. (Example: "Written languages guarantee a systematic pronunciation.")
  2. To engage to do something; to warrant or ensure that something will happen or has happened. (Example: "I'll guarantee that he'll never return to Bengurry.")
  3. To secure the possession of (something) to a person, etc. (Example: "Christ guarantees to the faith of His brethren...a true quittance and defence from sin.")
  4. To secure (a person or thing) against or from (risk, injury, etc.); to secure in (the possession of anything). (Example: "Angus was strongly disposed to make the attempt, if he could be guaranteed from loss.")

All of these definitions and examples state that something will happen in the future, or promise to do something or cause something to happen. In the first example, "Written languages guarantee a systematic pronunciation," the claim as I understand it is not that written language can't exist unless a systematic pronunciation is already in place; the claim is that written language tends to create a systematic pronunciation because we come to associate certain symbols with certain sounds. (Obviously, this claim would not apply to all writing systems.)

"Guarantee" is also often applied to products ("We guarantee this vacuum cleaner for life"); again, this is a statement about the future: the vacuum cleaner will not break down, and if it does, the manufacturer will replace it.

Vouch

"Vouch" has quite a few meanings, many of them archaic and/or specific to the legal realm. "Vouch for", however, has only these three:

  1. To speak or bear witness in behalf of (a person); to be surety or sponsor for. (Example: "I dispute not the lad's qualities, for which your reverence vouches.")
  2. To supply evidence or assurance of (some fact). (Example: "The certainty of the law...is vouched for...by the results of experiment.")
  3. To give personal assurance of the truth or accuracy of (a statement or fact). Also with accuracy, truth, etc., as object. (Example: "I love the country better than ever, I can vouch for that.")

I take it that the first meaning is the one you had in mind. My belief that "vouch" emphasizes the past, rather than the present, rests on the fact that even though you vouch for a person with an eye to the future--securing a job for her, for example--you're vouching for certain qualities, like character, experience, expertise, or personality, which are already possessed by that person. You're not guaranteeing that you'll take over the job if she fails; you're just saying that she has the expertise and background necessary to succeed at it.

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"Vouch" also has very much the sense of "endorse". I don't know Japanese, but I feel it's unlikely they would not have a word for that concept as distinct from OP's other sense of taking personal responsibility for what the "endorsed" person might actually do (or fail to do). –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '11 at 15:37

I believe that vouching is less about personality and more about trust. I would vouch for someone who I think deserves trust. In context:

"He'll do a good job, and I'd vouch for him."

Guarantee is more about, as you stated, whether or not someone will be able to work to the expected satisfaction.

"He will fix it, I guarantee."

As for whether or not there needs to be a great distinction - you will have to be the judge of that. However I feel that there is a definite line between vouching and guaranteeing that is nice to have in the English language.

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