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I am encountering the expression "to gain comfort", "to acquire comfort", and to "obtain comfort" more and more lately.

Example: "This issue was looked at in depth in 2013 and we obtained comfort at that time."

It does not strike me as idiomatic, even though I have no issue with writing something along the lines of "we are comfortable with the explanation provided."

A quick Google search seems to yield results mainly in a legal or contractual context, so I assume this is acceptable legalese. However, is this expression acceptable in more run-of-the-mill business writing?

Also, could this be a British versus North-American usage issue? The texts in which I most often encounter this expression are co-authored by Canadian and British authors.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

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    I agree with you that to my native AmE ear, this sounds awkward and unidiomatic. If you hadn't mentioned that you'd found it in other legitimate contexts, I would have assumed this was an innocent solecism by someone who has English as a second language. Certainly we can and do say "I got comfortable with the idea", e.g., and since one of the senses of obtained is got, maybe this is a case of someone (artificially, awkwardly) trying to elevate the register? Like the old skits of uneducated mobsters over-using polysyllabic Latinate words? – Dan Bron Jun 23 '15 at 18:34
  • @DanBron Thank you for your prompt reply. It's a relief to know that I am not alone in finding this expression odd. My instinct is to edit it out every time I come across it, but that is sometimes difficult given the lack of context. The same authors routinely use "revert" instead of "reply/respond/get back to" -- topic which was extensively covered elsewhere on this site -- so I wonder if this isn’t simply an expression that is more prevalent in British English. – Marla Kennedy Jun 23 '15 at 18:44
  • I'd say "revert" is more prevalent in Indian, not British, English, and it irks me no end. As does "Blah blah blah, the same". shakes fist in impotent rage – Dan Bron Jun 23 '15 at 18:45
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    Hmm, thinking about it more, I think "gained comfort" is pretty normal (but not obtained). – Dan Bron Jun 23 '15 at 18:49
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    By far the most common idiomatic phrase among "acquired comfort," "gained comfort," "obtained comfort," and "took comfort" is the last one, as this Ngram graph for the years 18321–2005 shows. – Sven Yargs Jun 24 '15 at 2:01
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"Comfort" has a few narrow legal uses. In contract law, a "comfort letter" is an assurance from one party of that party's willingness to undertake some contractual obligation. Since that assurance is usually considered a moral obligation and not itself a contractual one, it seems to me that it doesn't provide much in the way of comfort. In US bankruptcy law, creditors are stayed from seizing the assets of someone who's filing for bankruptcy. If the court doesn't grant relief to the poor debtor, then the stay is released and so are the creditor's hounds. The creditor may get a "comfort order" from the court explicitly noting that the stay has lapsed. Certainly no comfort to the debtor.

Within the legal arena and without, we have "obtain satisfaction," which appears to be a better fit in your example.

  • I agree that "obtain satisfaction" is more idiomatic, but I am concerned that the word "satisfaction" might be too strong. Wouldn’t “obtain satisfaction” mean that the satisfied party’s demands have been met? That is not the case in the context; the issue being addressed still remains, but certain concerns or fears have been assuaged. Thoughts? – Marla Kennedy Jun 23 '15 at 19:15
  • My only thought is that you know more about the context than I do. – deadrat Jun 23 '15 at 21:57
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"Gain/acquire/obtain comfort" does not sound natural to me, as an American. I've never seen those variations in a legal context, and I've read a lot of legal as a proofreader.

Not only that, but it just makes sense to give an object when talking about your comfort to avoid ambiguity. "This issue was looked at in depth in 2013, and we obtained comfort at that time" in no way links the comfort to the issue. Plus, we don't know if "comfort" means experience with the subject or emotional relief at the outcome.

I looked at some Ngrams, and it seems "are/became comfortable with" is much more popular than "obtained comfort." Note that "gained comfort" is more popular than "got comfortable with" in British English, but it's a negligible difference. Going back to the early 1800s, "obtained comfort" had a spike, but looking at it in depth, it seems it's owed to a lot of repeat publications of the same two or three phrases (in a religious context).

I would definitely stick to "are/became comfortable with" not just to avoid idiomatic language, but for the sake of accuracy.

  • I think you identified the core issue: using "gained comfort" or "obtained comfort" without specifying what with is incredibly vague. I suspect that this was done intentionally, which makes this sentence particularly difficult to edit without inventing missing content. – Marla Kennedy Jun 23 '15 at 19:32

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