Years ago I wrote an essay on aggressiveness and one of my sentences was "a strong defence against the outside world can be an acknowledgment of internal human failure..." My teacher then crossed out "acknowledgement" and wrote "recognition". When I asked him why he had done it, he just said "recognition was the right word for that context". I wasn't convinced and perhaps that's why I still remember it.

Definitions for "acknowledgment" (or acknowledgement) from mainstream dictionaries:

  • recognition of the importance or quality of something. ODO
  • recognition or notice. TFD
  • the fact of accepting that something is true or right CDO

In the above context, I can't see any difference between the two words to this day. My question is, are they interchangeable? Is there any subtlety I have missed?

  • Both sound fine to me, what doesn't is using 'a' or 'an' before either. 'a strong defense against the outside world can be the acknowledgment/recognition that the aptitude of the human body to failure is...' Both words need to be followed by that or 'of' needs a the. Or we're missing too much context at that point to say. – Mazura Feb 2 '15 at 1:24
  • It's a judgment call. There are differences, but they're subtle. (Frankly, I'm not sure either word was ideal in the above context.) – Hot Licks Feb 2 '15 at 2:10
  • @HotLicks I'm not sure I would use "acknowledgement" if I were to write it today. Maybe I'd say "sign" or "symptom". – Centaurus Feb 2 '15 at 13:25
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The difference (and there is one) is that you can recognize something without acknowledging it. Acknowledgement implies the external admission of a fact, whereas recognition may only be internal.

Think of it this way: I can recognize your contribution without acknowledging it. If I acknowledge your contribution, it presupposes that I am communicating it to (at least) another party, which may not include you. That's not true 100% of the time: I may acknowledge your contribution, but only to myself. Still, acknowledgment seems to need an audience, if only (as a last resort) an internal one. Recognition may happen whether one is conscious of the process on that "meta" level or not.

Example

John recognized Mary's contribution to the team, but refused to acknowledge it publicly lest she garner too much of what he felt should be his credit alone. Mary would receive no public recognition from the committee during her tenure there.

  • recognition: acknowledgment of something's existence, validity, or legality. Both words use each other in their definitions; your answer is true for only some of them. Colloquially though, I think you hit it on the head. – Mazura Feb 2 '15 at 2:08
  • I understand your explanation but I'm not sure I understand when I should use one or the other. – Centaurus Feb 2 '15 at 13:28
  • 1
    @Centaurus: It's a fine point. Think of it this way: I can recognize your contribution without acknowledging it. If I acknowledge your contribution, it presupposes that I am communicating it to (at least) another party, which may not include you. – Robusto Feb 2 '15 at 13:42
  • An example might help. – Centaurus Feb 2 '15 at 13:42
  • 1
    @Centaurus: see above. – Robusto Feb 2 '15 at 13:47

Acknowledgement is a person's expressed recognition to something. Recognition is accepting or recognizing something. Both can be used interchangeably most of the time.

However, your sentence is still incorrect - it doesn't matter which one you use there, because the logic of the sentence is wrong.

a strong defence against the outside world can be an acknowledgement of internal human failure...

That implies that a strong defence against the outside world is in response to the internal human failure. I'm assuming you're trying to say that a strong defence against the outside world is a sign of internal human failure. The sentence currently means that someone is acknowledging the fact that "internal human failure" happened by having a strong defence against the outside world.

  • Daemon, I was 19 or 20 when I wrote that. Nowadays, several decades later, I would probably use "sign" or "symptom". The sentence may be lousy but my curiosity here is to learn the difference between the two words. – Centaurus Feb 2 '15 at 13:40

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