When should "persuade" be preferred over "convince", and vice versa?
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Let's put some actors on a stage to help us think about the shades of meaning between these words.
Scene: Julie and Robert are discussing the difficulties of a life together. Julie's suitcase is packed and on the floor by her left hand. Their discourse has centered on emotional difficulties as well as logistical difficulties of staying together. As she picks up her suitcase and walks toward the door, Robert says:
If Robert uses "convince," then it seems to me that he is asking if there is a logical argument that would perhaps address the logistical difficulties in question.
If Robert uses "persuade," then it seems to have more of an appeal to Julie's emotions. (There may be a coercive component to "persuade" that is less present in "convince." Think film noir where the gangster type uses the word "persuade" as a threat, for example, "I sees dat you needs some persuading," as he smacks his fist into his palm.)
When confronted with issues of word choice, I often find it helpful to consider the associations and connotations a word has in its different forms. A convincing person or argument is one that other people cannot help but agree with, whereas a persuasive person or argument is one that other people find compelling, but which leaves more room (in my mind) for the opportunity to disagree.
If you have been convinced, you have clearly and decisively changed your perspective. If you have been persuaded, then you have chosen to agree with those you previously disagreed with. In the latter case, it may not be so much that you've found an argument you agree with so much as you're indulging someone who has appealed to you, either positively or negatively.
Prefer "convince" when the change of opinion must be definite or to deemphasize the role of whomever did the convincing. Prefer "persuade" to draw attention to either the arguments used or the individuals doing the arguing, to emphasize reluctance on the part of the persuaded, or when you need the word to contain more vowels.
Take a look at the following two examples:
1) He did a lot of persuading but I was not convinced.
2) He did a lot of convincing but I was not persuaded.
I may not be right but I tend to think 1) is more appropriate than 2).
In case I was right, then the difference between "persuade" and "convince" would be comparable to that between "listen to" and "hear", as shown in the following examples:
3) I tried to listen to her speech but her voice was so weak that I could hear nothing.
4) I tried to hear her speech but her voice was so weak that I could listen to nothing.
How should people use 'convince' and 'persuade', according to usage guides
Many guides to style and usage address this issue. Here are some entries from guides written during the past 40 years or so, showing the historical drift of usage commentators on the subject of convince and persuade. From Harry Shaw, Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (1975):
From Roy Copperud, American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1980):
From Kenneth Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993):
From Patricia O'Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (1996):
From Barabara Wallraff, Word Court (2000):
From Bill Bryson, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (2002):
From Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003):
How do writers really use 'convince' and 'persuade'?
As you can see from the foregoing extracts, adherence to the traditional distinction between convince [of or that] and persuade [to] remains quite strong in a certain niche of English writing— one that happens to include a lot of copy editors.
But how widely is this distinction recognized and enforced in published writing? Bearing in mind that we're dealing with writing that has (for the most part) traveled past at least one copy editor on its road to publication, let's look at the rates of occurrence in Google Books search results from 1850 to 2005 of three sample matches: "convinced him to" versus "persuaded him to"; "convinced him of" versus "persuaded him of"; and "convinced him that" versus "persuaded him that."
First, "convinced him to" (blue line) versus "persuaded him to" (red line):
Second, "convinced him of" (blue line) versus "persuaded him of" (red line):
And third, "convinced him that" (blue line) versus "persuaded him that" (red line):
In all three charts, the dominant phrase has dropped in frequency over the past half-century, but only in the case of "convinced him to" versus "persuaded him to" dos the underdog phrase show a significant upward trend in usage over the same period. The legitimacy of Copperud's remark about "the displacement of persuade by convince" thus seems confined to the verb + to instance.
The Google Books results show that there has always been some use of the disapproved forms "convince to," "persuade of," and "persuade that," despite the best efforts of gatekeeper editors. I doubt that the vast majority of the reading public have any idea of the prescribed difference in usage between convince and persuade—and certainly the distinction that used to show the greatest degree of preference ("persuade to" versus "convince to") shows much less force in 2005 than it did 40 years before that.
Evidently, some awareness of the traditional distinction remains, and a number of usage guides published in the past two decades argue in favor of preserving the distinction. But the trend toward using the words interchangeably—or at least toward using either word with a following infinitive— seems quite strong.
As always, when a writer ignores the rules of the past, some readers—especially those taught English under the old rules—will object. It's up to each writer (and editor and publisher) to decide whether such objections are worth worrying about.