Word Choice: Afflict vs. Inflict

There are some words in English that even native speakers get confused, such as ‘afflict’ and ‘inflict’. This is easy enough to do, as both come from the same root (the Latin word flictus, meaning ‘to strike’). But ‘afflict’ and ‘inflict’ differ in meaning, so it’s important to know which to use in any given situation.

This is especially true in academic writing, where clarity and accuracy are paramount. Mixing up your words when writing an essay can make the difference between scraping a pass and really impressing your reader.

But even in day-to-day life, such as when e-mailing friends or putting a CV together, word choice is important for clear communication. So we’ve prepared this helpful guide about how to use ‘afflict’ and ‘inflict’.

Afflict

The verb ‘afflict’ means ‘to cause pain or trouble’. It is most often used when describing injury or illness:

Gout has traditionally been a disease that afflicts the wealthy.

However, it can also be used figuratively to describe a misfortune or dilemma:

Henry was late for class, afflicted once more by a failure to set his alarm.

In addition to this, the noun ‘affliction’ can refer to either the cause of pain/harm (‘she suffered from a terrible affliction which affected her mobility’) or a state of pain/distress (‘the accident left him in great affliction’).

Inflict

The word ‘inflict’ also means to cause pain or suffering, but it differs importantly from ‘afflict’ in that it implies the pain being forced upon someone:

Diana enjoyed nothing more than inflicting suffering on others.

The difference here is that to ‘inflict’ involves actively hurting or attacking something, thereby emphasising the person/thing causing pain, while ‘afflict’ usually refers to a more passive process (such as falling ill, where the emphasis is typically on the person afflicted).

Thus we refer to situations in which we’ve brought misfortune upon ourselves as ‘self-inflicted’:

David’s failure was entirely self-inflicted: he forgot to leave enough time before the deadline.

Sometimes ‘inflict’ is also used to describe something unwanted being imposed upon someone or something (such as an unwilling audience):

Sara couldn’t sing, but every day she inflicted her rendition of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ upon her house mates.

Afflict or Inflict?

The best way to remember which word to use in any situation is to ask, ‘Who is being emphasised here?’

  • If the answer is the person/thing causing suffering, the correct term is ‘inflict’ (‘Jack the Ripper inflicted terrible wounds on his victims’).
  • If the answer is the person suffering, use ‘afflict’ (‘Jack the Ripper’s victims were afflicted with terrible wounds’).

Hopefully this post has helped clarify a few things about how to use ‘afflict’ and ‘inflict’, so don’t forget to check out the other handy tips on our academic blog for more advice.

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