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I have encountered the word proffer a few times and most of these times I find the word to be completely interchangeable with offer.

When and why is this word used? Am I misunderstanding the word?

Google translate supports my interchangeability position, so I'm not native speaking.

Edit: The proposition that proffer is built as (pre-)offer (as in first), is not at all appealing to me as a non-first offer would be a counter-offer.

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

A proffer is an initial (first) offer, or one made at the start of negotiation. There are additional, legal senses of the word (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proffer), but that is the distinction I would make for ordinary usage.

Also "implies voluntary action motivated especially by courtesy or generosity", as in (thanks to @horatio)

proffer an apology

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Wikipedia makes the distinction: "The act of proffering involves making an offer prior to any formal negotiations" . Merriam-Webster does not make this distinction. The M-W Learner section defines proffer as to offer so I'm not any more enlightened. Edited first post. –  Captain Giraffe Sep 20 '11 at 16:55
    
Check the synonyms at thefreedictionary.com/offer for more clarification, @CaptainGiraffe. I took my common meaning as a combination of the way I have heard it used, and the pro- prefix meaning "before in time or position". I didn't include the sense of "implies voluntary action motivated especially by courtesy or generosity", but will add that. –  JeffSahol Sep 20 '11 at 17:02
    
@captaingiraffe: in ordinary conversation if one were to "proffer an apology," the apology might have been offered and delivered before it was demanded. Whereas one would not proffer an apology in response to a demand. Note that proffer is fairly uncommon in my personal experience and, as such, the distinction might not be fully apprehended or appreciated. –  horatio Sep 20 '11 at 17:16
    
@horatio fairly uncommon, as in: not so uncommon, yes. Your example deserves to be an answer. It seems this word is not easily defined by description, but rather by example. –  Captain Giraffe Sep 20 '11 at 17:27
    
The courtesy/generosity argument seems to me quite strong. I appreciate that. –  Captain Giraffe Sep 20 '11 at 17:29
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The object, to my mind, would have to have some tangible quality, typically involving a negotiation. One can proffer a settlement, but offer an opinion.

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It is well possible to proffer advice or assistance, both non-tangible, as a first hit on google readily tells you. –  oerkelens Jun 4 at 14:07
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