Traditionally, newspaper reporters have been urged to shy away from the verbs “admit” and “confess” in favor of “acknowledge.” After all these years of struggling with fitting “acknowledge” into headlines, I decided it was time to dig into this word issue.

Traditionally, newspaper reporters have been urged to shy away from the verbs “admit” and “confess” in favor of “acknowledge.” After all these years of struggling with fitting “acknowledge” into headlines, I decided it was time to dig into this word issue.

I must confess, it doesn’t appear to pose much of a problem outside journalism.
The current advice in The Associated Press Stylebook for “confess” is, “In some contexts,” it “may be erroneous.”

Similarly, the stylebook warns that “admit” can “in some contexts give the erroneous connotation of wrongdoing.” It offers this as an illustration:

“A person who acknowledges that he is a recovering alcoholic, for example, is not ‘admitting’ it.”

I don’t know where that came from. In Webster’s, we find that the first definition of “acknowledge” is “to admit to be true or as stated; confess.”

For “confess,” the first entry is “to admit (a fault or crime)” and “to acknowledge (an opinion or view).”

And “admit” is defined as “to acknowledge or confess.”

I would say that’s about as interchangeable as three words can get.

The dictionary delves a bit deeper in a “synonymy” box. The implication in the use of “acknowledge,” it says, is “the reluctant disclosure of something one might have kept secret.” “Admit,” it says, “describes assent that has been elicited by persuasion and implies a conceding of fact, etc.”

In that light, “acknowledge” appears to be every bit as potentially incriminating as “admit.”

As for “confess,” it’s “applied to a formal acknowledgment of a sin, crime, etc., but in a weakened sense is used interchangeably with ‘admit’ in making simple declarations.”

I admit that I did just that in the second paragraph.  

There is one distinction that is generally recognized in criminal law, according to Bryan A. Garner in “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” An “admission” is “a concession that an allegation or factual assertion is true without any acknowledgment of guilt with respect to the criminal charges.”

By contrast, a “confession” is “an acknowledgment of guilt as well as of the truth of factual allegations.” (Spelling tip: Notice that there’s no “e” between the “g” and “m” in “acknowledgment,” as is the case with “abridgment” and “judgment” as well.)

Of course, during criminal proceedings, evidence and testimony also are admitted. But that’s a different definition of “admit” at work — “to allow.”

The sense I’ve been focusing on in this column is actually its sixth definition. “Admit” also can mean “to let in” (“there were just two doors open to admit concertgoers”); “to entitle to enter” (“the ticket admits two”); “to have room for” (“the hall admits 2,500 people”); and “to permit to practice certain functions” (“to be admitted to the bar”).

There are a couple of usage distinctions involving “admit.” You don’t need the word “to” when admitting something. Don’t write “she admitted to taking the money.” Make it “she admitted taking the money.” The “to” is one word too many.

And there’s a difference between “admission” and “admittance.” The latter is strictly physical. A “no admittance” sign means you can’t go in.

“Admission” is usually nonphysical, except, as Garner puts it, “when rights or privileges are attached to gaining entry.” That’s why schools have admissions offices.

So you could gain admission to a college, but there still might be places on campus where you can’t gain admittance.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.