Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

There are some important things to say about enable and allow – two words involved in one of the most common mistakes made in business communication. For starters:

They are different words with different meanings.

This might seem simple enough, but it is being disregarded left, right and centre in the world of business. How many times have you seen an advert that promises ‘this new thing allows you to be happier/richer/taller than ever before’? Allows? No.

Allow is another way of saying permit. Your parents allow you to stay up late at the weekend. Your boss allows you to leave the office early.

Enable is defined as providing with the means or opportunity. A mobile phone enables you to talk on the move. A blog enables you to rant about bad grammar.

Quite different. The problem is that they get mixed up all the time. A new product doesn’t give you permission to do something. It might help you do something, or facilitate that action (i.e. enable) but it doesn’t give you permission (i.e. allow). I’ll say it again:

They are different words with different meanings.

But if it’s truly too difficult to select the appropriate word, there is an alternative – a word that is a synonym for enable and allow: let. Let means permit and facilitate – and it’s nice and simple.

So if you can’t decide whether to use enable or allow, use let instead. Maybe we should all use it anyway, it’s far more straightforward.


7 responses to “Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

  • sallyedmans

    I think the example of the advert comes from the fact that advertisers want to appear to promise all kinds of wondrous things for which the item in question cannot possibly be responsible. The thing can’t enable you to be taller than ever before, but it can allow it. It can also allow you to turn purple, sing like Madonna or win the Grand National. It doesn’t enable it. Advertisers are counting on the stupidity of the masses not to notice the difference, and as we see it emblazoned in front of our eyes time and time again we become so used to reading between the lines that the assumed meaning is coming to be accepted as another usage of the words. It’s another “evolution of language” moment, sparked by advertising weasels.

    • thelucyg

      Sally, I love how much credit you’re giving the advertisers; I’d never looked at it that way. A small part of me hopes you’re right, because the alternative explanation is that they just don’t know the difference between allow and enable.

  • Jill Bray

    I have long known which to use when and used it correctly.I shall not use ‘let’, but agree that it is a good alternative for those who just don’t know which one to use. I think, as above, that this is just another of those errors which, in the fullness of time, won’t be one, sadly!

  • Rich

    Source please? You can’t just state something like this as a fact without an adequate citation. Particularly when it’s wrong. One of the most recently cited OED definitions of ‘to allow’:

    IV. To permit, enable.
    This branch covers a range of meaning from actively giving permission to passively not preventing something.
    10. trans.
    a. To give consent to the occurrence of or relax restraint on (an action, event, or activity); to consent to the presence or attendance of (a person); to permit, enable.

    I.e. Allow can = enable.

    • thelucyg

      Good point, Rich, thanks for commenting. You’re right – there is some overlap in meaning, specifically around permission. What I’m talking about here is the frequent misuse of ‘allow’ when the writer actually means to equip or supply with the means, knowledge or opportunity – i.e. ‘enable’.

  • Lee

    It’s a losing battle, the distinction between “allow” and “enable”. [Merriam-]Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language make a gallant effort to maintain the distinction. Webster’s Ninth (under “let”, synonyms) asserts that “allow” “…implies little more than a forbearing to prohibit”. The AHDEL (under “allow”, synonyms) equates it with “…to grant or consent to something” and “refraining from any hindrance”, and refers to the “capacity to prevent an act”. Meanwhile, the online OED, at “allow”, IV.10.b, merges “permit” and “enable” in one definition. There, among examples dating from 1450 to 2010, is only one in which “allow” clearly means “enable”: “Jane Austen allowed him to see into, and approve..the ways and habits of many a pleasant young lady.” (1931). Jane Austen didn’t have the “capacity to prevent” his seeing. The works of Austen enabled him to see. But is 1931 the earliest instance of “allow” = “enable”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: