I wrote, "Imbuing a love of reading in youth is a high calling," to a friend and then questioned my usage of the word, "imbue." Does anyone think the way I used it was incorrect in terms of structure? Would,"Imbuing youth with a love reading is a high calling," a better choice?

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  • Welcome to EL&U. What did you find out in your own research ? 'Imbuing X with Y' seems to be the idiomatic expression, from just a brief Google.But the Ngram books.google.com/ngrams/… indicates an equal split between imbuing with/imbuing in. – Nigel J Jan 27 '18 at 3:13

You are fine. "Imbue" is a transitive verb and it works somewhat like "give". You can "imbue (the) youth with a love for reading" or you can "imbue a love of reading in (the) youth", just as you can "give me a book" or "give a book to me".

However, I would generally prefer "imbue (the) youth with a love for reading" and "give a book to me".

  • Not really; the person is the direct object, always. The other usage barely works with instil, but that's not really right either. – Will Crawford Jan 27 '18 at 5:01
  • The im- and in- both mean onto or into (like install, impregnate) – Will Crawford Jan 27 '18 at 5:05
  • I strongly disagree. Language is what we make it - and I perceive "imbue" to have a loose syntactic structure, as does "give". I wish that it were otherwise, but it simply is not. (The original poster likely agrees with me because they naturally used the form which you find improper). The prefixes do not matter as far as I can tell. – user173897 Jan 30 '18 at 8:03
  • I also strongly disagree. All the examples given by dictionaries for "imbue" are along the lines of "[X] is imbued with [Y]" where X is a person or their work, and Y is some quality or attribute. – Will Crawford Jan 30 '18 at 14:59
  • I am confused; do you disagree with me or yourself? Anyway: Who cares what a dictionary says? I literally just said "language is what we make it". I am using descriptivistic linguistics, not prescriptivism. Even if we take your definition, that can be reinterpreted in the active voice as "[Y] imbues [X]", where Y is a non-agentive subject (namely a quality). Notice that this definition is a subpart of one of the options listed in the OP, where those definitions are agentive. – user173897 Jan 30 '18 at 20:55

You haven't convinced me that your friend was concerned with word order. Your friend may simply be uncomfortable with using a less-common word. There may be a perception that the less common word is more pretentious.

Instill is more common than imbue in this situation. The two words are near synonyms, so you should be OK. However, there are subtle differences that may make you want to prefer instill after all:


gradually but firmly establish (an idea or attitude, especially a desirable one) in a person's mind.


inspire or permeate with a feeling or quality.

(both definitions from dictionary.com)

Instill comes from a latin root meaning "drop". Another meaning of the word is to drip a precise amount of one liquid into another. So, Instill has an implication of being measured.

On the other hand, imbue is also a synonym of "saturate". In Middle English, it meant precisely that. So if you say you want to "imbue" someone with a love of reading, it may imply you want to make someone love reading above anything else, which might be more than you might (or should) want.


To imbue ... feels more natural here. However, as answered already, instil is a little better in meaning - imbue is more like "baptize". You'll be able to look up synonyms yourself, but a couple that I think could also work:

  • To encourage ... [you can't really force it]
  • To inspire [can't escape the spiritual connotations here :)]

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