Is the following sentence correct?

They are discriminated because of their skin colour.

My gut feeling tells me discriminate (in this sense) has to be followed by against. Dictionary examples use against too, but no rules are stated in OALD or Macmillan.


Your gut feeling is correct.

When the verb discriminate means to treat people unfairly, it isn't followed by a direct object. The preposition against is necessary to complete the meaning of the verb. So, you can't say *He discriminates them because of their skin colour. The sentence must be He discriminates against them because of their skin colour. When you switch the sentence in the passive form, it will be They are discriminated against because of their skin colour.

EDIT: After @Shoe's comment, I did some search. It appears that what I wrote in my answer is valid, but things are starting to change according to this chart.

  • 2
    I agree with this answer and would never omit against. But an internet search on are discriminated because throws up many hits on reputable-looking sites. Possibly discriminate is beginning to behave like protest, which in BE needs the preposition, but in AE does not. So it is possible to say: United Nations Secretary General Ban ki Moon was protested in the Gaza Strip. – Shoe Mar 25 '12 at 8:25
  • @Shoe: Well, your comment prompted me to do a similar search and it appears you are right. I'll edit my answer. – Irene Mar 25 '12 at 9:02
  • hmmm, Irene, I don't see how the chart shows any change.. the red line (dicriminate because) is level at the bottom throughout all time... or do I misread it? – Naomi Mar 25 '12 at 16:58
  • @NAomi: If you look under the chart, you will see time periods and the two strings one under the other. Click on each expression to see how many hits there are for each one. It surprised me that there were any results at all for discriminate because, but they are there. – Irene Mar 25 '12 at 17:07

The meaning of "disriminated against" is a subset of the meanings which may be conveyed by "discriminated".

Adding "against" could be held, as @Irene suggests, to complete the meaning of the verb, but arguably it modifies the meaning or selects a subset of the possible meanings.

"To discriminate" has a clear meaning in its own right and "discriminate against" has a different meaning with clear connotations of opprobrium or unfavorable action which are not expressly conveyed by "discriminate" alone. .

By itself "discriminate " does not have any sense of assigning relative values - it just carries the sense of having distinguished a difference, and perhaps of having acted differently due to a distinguished difference, but still not in a positive or negative sense. Properly it implies "discriminated between".

Also, "discriminated against" indicates that there is a corresponding and inseparable "discriminated in favour of" taking place simultaneously. The two may be seen as "different faces of the same coin, but not necessarily so.

eg if a selection process 'discriminated against students with low stature' it necessarily discriminates in favour of those with greater stature. So "discriminated against is a subset of the total process taking place. But in another example the positive act and negative act could be separate. eg put money in the accounts of xxx. Took money from the accounts of yyy.

While "discriminated" or "discriminated between" may suggest that the process has negative and positive connotations this is not necessarily the case. "Each day he discriminated whether the day's date was divisible by 7" [or not]

< "or not" added to clear brain filters. >

The two comments so far:

  • Stated that 'discriminated' was used incorrectly in the last sentence above. It's nice to be so certain of one's usage, I imagine.

  • Queried whether 'discriminated whether' was valid

Needless to say, I consider the usage valid.
Below are a few 'more of the same' samples from the web.
At 40,000 odd Gargoyle hits it's not overly common usage.
However, decide for yourself:

Note that

  • "discriminated whether noun verb" may sit more easily

  • "discriminated whether both xxx or yyy ... " feels good

  • "discriminated whether

Samples from the net:

Some of these are far more euphonic than others
Some are questionable.
Some 'feel' very right.

Nature, letters. Attention modulates synchronized neuronal ®ring in primate somatosensory corte

  • Monkey M3 discriminated whether bars (6.0 mm long) presented successively to a distal ®ngerpad had the same or different (by 908) orientations

Springer images

  • Tilt discrimination display in which subjects discriminated whether both lines were tilted to the right or left (shown) of vertical

Patent [Video signal convering apparatus and method]( It is discriminated whether the input video signal is an interlaced video signal or not, and it is discriminated whether the input video signal is a video signal from a film source based on a film.) - Awkward

  • It is discriminated whether the input video signal is an interlaced video signal or not, and it is discriminated whether the input video signal is a video signal from a film source based on a film.

The Journal of Neuroscience Neural Activity in Cortical Area V4 Underlies Fine Disparity Discrimination

Author names Asian? English used generally seems extremely competent.

  • Monkeys discriminated whether the center disk of a dynamic random-dot stereogram was in front of or behind its surrounding annulus

Patent. 4 uses. Awkward feel.
Probe method

  • According to the method, it can be discriminated whether or not the wafer is circular. Also, it can be discriminated whether or not a detecting member having a tactile sense detecting the contact between the probe needles and the chip is used when measuring. Moreover, it can be discriminated whether or not the range of the chips to be measured on the wafer is designated. Also, it can be discriminated whether or not the tips of the needles are polished.

Pubmed Sexual victimization and adolescent weight regulation practices: a test across three community based samples.

  • Sexual victimization was associated more strongly with extreme forms of weight regulation and significantly discriminated whether girls would choose multiple weight regulation forms.
  • 1
    I was going to +1 until your last sentence, which misuses "discriminated" and is missing an apostrophe. I'd suggest something like "One can easily discriminate between different types of yoghurt by reading the label." – Andrew Leach Mar 25 '12 at 23:43
  • I think it would be better to use "determined" in the day number example. I think it is impossible to "discriminate whether". To discriminate means to threat differently. A better example would be "Unlike his mother he discriminated the varieties of blue". – Anixx Mar 26 '12 at 2:40
  • @Andrew - Ee bah gum - somebody's got to keep track of the aprostrophypos I guess. Feel free, any time, to insert any obviously obvious ones that have escaped me. I wot you're wrong re the misuse point. See the examples, some of which are questionable, and some of which seem very apposite indeed. The stereographically enabled monkey's seem to be discriminate and discriminating. While eg "determined" could be used there, the fine point regarding degree of intelligence or mental capability seems better made with discriminated whether, than with distinguished or determined, I submit. – Russell McMahon Mar 26 '12 at 8:35
  • OK Russell and Andrew, I had to stop reading eventually... Obviously, "discriminate" can stand alone when it means to "differentiate". But in my example sentence above it clearly does not, but means "to treat a person/group in an unfair way" - my question should therefore have been... When "discriminate" means to treat unfairly, can "against" be left out or not? i.e. can discriminate be followed by a noun as in the original sentence I asked about...? – Naomi Apr 13 '12 at 9:46

What we're witnessing is the process of losing the verb 'to discriminate', meaning exercising the capacity to tell one thing from another, while keeping that form to use in the verb's second meaning, which is embedded in the context of the current fashion for prioritising racism above other social ills.

People used to know that as Irene says, when we mean that we are selecting a group or a person for positive or negative attention, a preposition is required: " I was discriminated against because I'm fat" or "Affirmative action was intended to discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities". Now, my students habitually write " He was discriminated", which makes no sense according to the rules of grammar, but clearly has an intended meaning approximating to " he was treated unfairly because if some personal characteristic".

Whether that's a dumbing-down based on ignorance, or an innovative use of our language, is a matter for debate.

  • Absolutely. Very clearly explained. – Lambie Jul 24 '16 at 12:31
  • We're not really losing it ... we can still use that meaning by saying discriminate between. But you're right in that the intransitive meaning of of discriminate is changing from discriminate between to discriminate against. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '16 at 12:41
  • I think it's important to identify the "we" in this answer as (presumably) North Americans. I'm not so sure it's true of the rest of the English-speaking world, where the statement "He was discriminated" would most likely be dismissed as either bizarre or a typo (for "discriminating"). – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Jul 24 '16 at 13:50

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