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What are the differences between the three words: disseminate, propagate and spread?

Here are some examples from a fill-in-the-blank test:

  1. News is __ by means of television and radio. (disseminated)
  2. Don't __ malicious reports. (propagate)
  3. Some people are keen on __ rumours. (spreading)

I want to know the specific differences of the three words, and why they cannot be replaced with each other.

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Is this something you have to do as part of a class assignment? If it is, the question may be closed. What efforts have you yourself made to find the answer? –  Barrie England Nov 6 '12 at 8:33
I have the same concerns as @BarrieEngland. As it stands, we don't even know if you looked up the words in a dictionary. –  Cameron Nov 6 '12 at 9:04
@Cameron: I'd normally echo that sentiment as well, but, in this case, the dictionaries are of little use, as the definitions are circular. The fact that the O.P. is asking why they cannot be replaced with each other suggests that some preliminary research was performed, as there is much overlap in meaning between the words. (Still, I agree that the question could be improved by providing some dictionary definitions within the question). –  J.R. Nov 6 '12 at 9:17
Yes. This is part of class assignment. The answers are provided in the textbook, but no explanations are available. I looked up in the Oxford Dictionary of English, and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Just as what JR says, the definitions are circular. I was quite confused. (Yes. I should have provided some dictionary definitions within the question. Thank your all for your concern.) –  Jan Liu Nov 6 '12 at 12:45
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1 Answer

For questions like this, I normally agree with Barrie's comment, but I'm having trouble figuring out why a test would ask you to differentiate between these largely synonymous words with such examples.

The words have somewhat circular definitions in dictionaries. For example:

propagate: to promulgate; disseminate [Collins #3]
disseminate: spread or disperse (something, esp. information) widely [Oxford]
spread: to give information to many people [Macmillan #7]

Disseminate means to spread, but the implication is to spread widely among a large group of people. Still, in the example sentence, I think the word broadcast would fit better than disseminate.

Propagate also means to spread (Macmillan describes it as to spread ideas, beliefs etc to a lot of people), but it also carries a connotation of passing along information. You hear something, and, instead of keeping it to yourself, you tell someone else.

Spread is the most generic of the three, and the word can be used in a wide variety of other contexts (you can spread peanut butter on a slice of bread, for example).

Idiomatically, spread is often used with rumors, but that doesn't mean the other two words are never used. Here is the Ngram for “propagate rumors” vs. “disseminate rumors”; the expressions are found, but are dwarfed when we add “spread rumors” to the Ngram. That's the main justification I can think of for using spreading with the third sentence; rumors are generally said to be spread.

All in all, though, I don't think the answers to sentence examples are utterly obvious, even to a native speaker, and you can find contextual examples of the words being swapped. For example, reports can be disseminated, and news can be propagated.

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I thought disseminate means to scatter information widely as if sowing seeds, and propagate means to make members in public accept an idea and be followers. But now I know I was wrong. These two words may be interchangeable, and that rumors are generally said to be spread. Thank you very much for your thorough analysis. –  Jan Liu Nov 6 '12 at 12:53
@JanLiu: Careful - I wouldn't say that you were wrong. In fact, I'd say you were correct! That said, many words in English are rather flexible, and can expanded to be used in a wider, more general context than what a strict definition might indicate. That's why so many words in English have multiple definitions, and why various dictionaries offer different definitions. But the two definitions you provided are quite valid. –  J.R. Nov 6 '12 at 14:46
:I guess I've already had a much better understanding of these words with your help. Thank you so much. –  Jan Liu Nov 7 '12 at 11:23
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