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Expropriate has the following definitions (Merriam-Webster):

  1. to deprive of possession or proprietary rights
  2. to transfer (the property of another) to one's own possession

For example, in the following sentence:

The Government's motion seeks to expropriate the company's private intellectual property to facilitate an investigation. (emphasis added)

At first I thought the difference between appropriate and expropriate was who the benefit was going to. In other words, you would appropriate property you had possession/ownership of, but if you were to use someone else's property, that would be an expropriation.

But appropriate is defined as (Merriam-Webster):

  1. to take exclusive possession of
  2. to set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use
  3. to take or make use of without authority or right

That third definition seems to imply you can appropriate both property that belongs to you or property that doesn't belong to you. In the later case, the definition is the same as expropriate.

Can anyone sort out this mess?

  • 2
    The meanings can certainly overlap, to an extent. But I think the relatively rare expropriate is often a legal / governmental action, where the focus is on depriving the current owner of his [legal right to] ownership, whereas the far more common appropriate generally emphasizes taking the thing itself. – FumbleFingers Mar 26 '16 at 18:09
  • The connotation of appropriate is the transference to the new holder. The connotation of expropriate is the transference from the old holder. – Jim Mar 26 '16 at 18:41
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Expropriate is generally used to imply removal by a heavy-handed, but legal force, often by government.

Appropriate merely means to take something over as one's own. Illegality is not usually implied, but it does carry a sense of firmly transferring something to oneself or another, or on the part of another person to themselves or another. But note from the examples how it is used to describe the actions of nature.

However misappropriate implies acquisition by illegal means - fraud or theft..

A few examples of the use of each of the three words, from the OED, should help explain.

Expropriate

1875 J. H. Bennet Winter & Spring Mediterranean (ed. 5) xiii. 480
The Government gives..a power to expropriate the owner of the land required.

1881 Macmillan's Mag. 44 132 To expropriate the owners from their estates must be a very bitter pill.

1881 Daily Tel. 14 Feb. A corner of the garden..was ‘expropriated’ by Baron Haussman for the purpose of widening the Rue Lafayette.

1884 Contemp. Rev. Oct. 518 The State..expropriates private property for public utility.

Appropriate

1876 E. Mellor Priesthood i. 15 The name ‘priest~hood’..was never appropriated by apostles to themselves.

1785 W. Cowper Task v. 761 A liberty like his, who unimpeached Of usurpation..Appropriates nature as his Father's work.

1871 J. Tyndall Fragm. Sci. II. vi. 83 The bud appropriates those constituents..for which it has elective attraction.

1809 T. E. Tomlins Jacob's Law-dict. at Appropriation, The monasteries..appropriated as many benefices as they could by any means obtain.>

1801 J. Strutt Glig-gamena Angel-ðeod Introd. 7 These amusements..were appropriated to the season of Lent.

1839 H. Hallam Introd. Lit. Europe III. vii. 634 The subject chosen is appropriated to the characteristic peculiarities of the poet.

Misappropriate

1904 J. Conrad Nostromo ii. iii. 127, I am not likely to misappropriate the funds.

1952 W. Plomer Museum Pieces (1961) xxvi. 204 He had misappropriated the funds entrusted to him.

1987 Melody Maker 8 Aug. 10 Disfiguring and misappropriating pop's legacies.

1990 Times 2 Feb. 34/7 The purpose of the fraud was to enable moneys to be ingathered and misappropriated.

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Yes, as the grammarist notes, appropriate and expropriate are often used interchangeably in reference to goverment appropriation of private property:

To expropriate:

  • is to deprive of possession, especially using eminent domain or judicial action. So expropriate is often interchangeable with appropriate where the latter involves depriving of possession, and both words are indeed commonly used in reference to government appropriation of private property and companies.

As in :

  • The Columbia City Council yesterday approved a measure to appropriate funds that could be used to provide bonuses to city employees. [Columbia Daily Tribune]

To appropriate:

  • is (1) to take possession of for one’s own use, and (2) to set something apart for a specific use. To appropriate something is not necessarily to deprive another of possession; for example, an artist might appropriate another’s style, or one might appropriate a catchy archaic phrase from the 18th century. But appropriation does sometimes involve depriving of possession, such as when a government appropriates a private company. In its second sense, appropriate usually applies to government funds or other official resources given out for specified purposes. This use of the word is primarily American, but it’s not unheard of elsewhere.
  • appropriate funds;exproproriate property, whethere real property(chattels) or funds. The grammarist is confused. To appropriate is never to deprive another of their rightful possessions. At least, I've never seen it used like that. – Lambie Mar 26 '16 at 18:28
  • Isn't the third def'n of appropriate exactly depriving someone of their rightful possessions? I quote: "to take or make use of without authority or right." How can you make use of without authority if you're not depriving someone of a right? – franklin Mar 27 '16 at 19:51

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