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I noticed that, in the dictionary, the words admonish, censure and reprimand can have a meaning resembling criticize or disapprove (of) some one sharply and formally. ODO says:

Admonish (verb): warn or reprimand someone firmly.
Censure (verb): express severe disapproval of (someone or something), typically in a formal statement.
Reprimand (verb): a rebuke, esp. an official one.

and I'm writing about a person, Suresh, who get such criticism from his mentor, Sanjay, with whom he has a good work relationship. I'm considering saying that the Suresh is admonished by Sanjay, or reprimanded by Sanjay or censured by Sanjay.

I would like to know:

(1) Is there a difference between those three? Would you imagine that reprimanding Suresh is a slightly different meaning than admonishing or censuring Suresh? (I typed all these three words into a Google image search, and I got similar images for admonish and reprimand. I got different images for censure. However I cannot grasp a clear difference).

(2) Among those three words, only admonish has other meanings. For example, it has other meanings like advise or urge (someone) earnestly

If all these three words are essentially the same meaning, is there any reason I should avoid using one word or the other?

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I believe there's a hierarchy of severity here: Censure, Reprimand, Admonish (in descending order). –  user21497 Dec 25 '12 at 10:29
    
I believe the idea of a clear-cut "ranking scale" is fanciful. Almost everyone would agree that admonish/scold/chide are normally less condemnatory than rebuke/reproach. And most would agree that reprimand/censure are more likely in an "official" (and thus inherently more serious) context. But that's probably about as far as it goes before we're down to subjective personal opinions. –  FumbleFingers Dec 29 '12 at 4:19

2 Answers 2

If there is a good working relationship, any of the 3 words would be acceptable ONLY if Suresh had done something which warranted criticism, as opposed to just correction or instruction.

The appropriateness partially depends on what you mean by "good relationship.
A Zen-master or military drill-instructor is liable to do all these regardless of how good the relationship - and perhaps regardless of the cause.
A Karate or Akido instructor may do similarly but only if the spur of criticism is felt to be needed. An international class conductor may do the same to an orchestra.
BUT the actions of a children's music teacher, general class room teacher and similar would be described in this way only if there were clear failures to follow rules or to behave correctly.

In eg a typical lecturer-student relationship, if the student hands in assignments which are on time and which do not transgress any submission guidelines then none of the words would be acceptable. All imply that the recipient has gone outside guidelines, broken rules or generally behaved badly.

While "admonish" will be found in dictionaries with the sense of instruct or correct positively, this usage would be rare enough that if you hear it used then you can understand a sense of severity.

All that said:

Censure - Very clear indication of disapproval. Formal warning. Harshness intended.

Reprimand - definite displeasure shown. Point out that actions are unacceptable / break rules / do not meet standards. Strong indication that repeat action will lead to more severe consequences.

Admonish - As noted in text, an element of learning and correction process is implied but in most cases this indicates displeasure and incorrect action.

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I found this usage note under the word rebuke in NOAD; you may find it helpful:

rebuke, admonish, censure, reprimand, reproach, scold: All of these verbs mean to criticize or express disapproval, but which one you use depends on how upset you are.

If you want to go easy on someone, you can admonish or reproach, both of which indicate mild and sometimes kindly disapproval. To admonish is to warn or counsel someone, usually because a duty has been forgotten or might be forgotten in the future (e.g., admonish her about leaving the key in the lock), while reproach also suggests mild criticism aimed at correcting a fault or pattern of misbehavior (e.g., he was reproved for his lack of attention in class).

If you want to express your disapproval formally or in public, use censure or reprimand. You can censure someone either directly or indirectly (e.g., the judge censured the lawyer for violating courtroom procedures; a newspaper article that censured “deadbeat dads”), while reprimand suggests a direct confrontation (e.g., reprimanded by his parole officer for leaving town without reporting his whereabouts).

If you're irritated enough to want to express your disapproval quite harshly and at some length, you can scold (e.g., to scold a child for jaywalking).

Rebuke is the harshest word of this group, meaning to criticize sharply or sternly, often in the midst of some action (e.g., rebuke a carpenter for walking across an icy roof).

Also, of the three words that you've mentioned, I think censure most stongly implies that some sort of formal disciplinary action has been taken. Admonish would entail a verbal warning only, at least in my mind. Reprimand could be used either way, as someone might be verbally reprimanded by a supervisor or mentor, or else formally reprimanded, which could result in some kind of formal documentation in a work file.

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