In a business English class:

One of my students said: "I decline your report."

I said that was wrong, but I couldn't think of a concrete reason, or rule for when I can use decline as a polite refusal.

My question is, is there a rule for using decline as a polite refusal? (For example I can say: "Your credit card is declined.", but I can't decline your report).

  • Doesn't decline require a verb? E.g. "I decline to accept your report." I think that when no verb is present it much be strongly implied. Sep 13 '11 at 20:17

The problem that I perceive in your student's example has nothing to do with a polite refusal, and more to do with the unidiomatic use of "report" as the object of "decline".

The verb decline normally implies that there is some sort of transaction or offer being considered, which may be politely rejected. Idiomatic usage of decline usually occurs in the context of an exchange or negotiation:

  • I declined his offer on my house.
  • They declined my application.
  • The board declined to extend her contract.

A report, however, is not something that is normally used in an exchange. Rather, we expect a report to be "approved" if it meets standards or is otherwise acceptable. When something is not approved, we usually describe this with the verb reject or refuse:

  • The journal rejected my paper.
  • The editor refused my story.

In a business context, I would not say that either of these words are overly harsh or inappropriate.

  • 1
    One of the wonderful linguistic constructions in which you cannot simply say <part of speech> takes <other part of speech>, but is entirely context dependent. This is what separates fluency and familiarity.
    – Dereleased
    Sep 13 '11 at 20:27

The idiomatic use of decline does not seem apparent when looking at the dictionary definition, for example, Dictionary.com. It says,

Def. 2. to express inability or reluctance to accept; refuse with courtesy: to decline an invitation; to decline an offer.

What is being refused is something that will be answered with a "yes" or "no": an invitation to a party, a proposal of marriage, a charge to a credit card. These may all be declined.

Whether the report may be declined depends on what type of report it is. If it is a report of electric meter usage, it probably could not be declined. It has neither "yes" nor "no" as a response. If it is a report of a patient's condition, it would similarly be unidiomatic to decline the report.

However, if the report were from a Senate committee that the full Senate did not want to receive or air, then the report might declined. That is because the report may carries a motion that would require debate or action on the part of the full Senate.

Here is a page that deals with Robert's Rules of Order, which the Senate uses in a modified form. One portion says,

The society cannot alter the report of the board. It may decline to indorse it, or even to allow it to be printed, but it cannot make it appear that the board stated anything different from what it has reported.

So some reports may be declined. It depends on the report.

  • 1
    No, in the excerpt from Robert's Rules, what is being declined is not the report but the infinitival complement "to indorse it". You might paraphrase this as "decline the opportunity or invitation to indorse it".
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 13 '11 at 16:25
  • @Colin Fine, Just so, but consider anaphora in the use of the word. Consider "Visa declined to permit the credit card transaction" and contrast with "Visa declined the credit card transaction." The removal of "to permit" does not make the second sentence ungrammatical. I agree that the Senate is not declining the report so much as it is declining to indorse the report. But in this case when the anaphora for the word is clear, "the Senate declined the report" will be grammatical. (This might be the rule that the OP requested.)
    – rajah9
    Sep 13 '11 at 19:24
  • Yes, OK, I accept that the object can get raised out of the complement clause; but I would suggest that it happens only when the infinitive is "accept" or something very like it. So I would read "declined the report" as "declined to accept the report", not as "declined to publish/discuss/endorse the report".
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 14 '11 at 13:27
  • I raised a related question in Linguistics. Please see linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/454/…
    – rajah9
    Jun 27 '18 at 15:45

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