Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

English borrows a lot from other languages and this includes a number of Latin phrases that persist to this day. You might remember when I wrote about the proper use of e.g. and i.e. and how the former is used to provide examples, whereas the latter is used more for providing meaning or clarification. And then we get phrases like “quid pro quo” that are usually reserved for more formal discussion.

But what does “quid pro quo” mean in the first place? Literally translated from the original Latin, “quid pro quo” means “something for something.” An English phrase that provides a similar meaning would be “tit for tat” or “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” The fundamental idea here is that we are discussing a roughly equal exchange of goods or services. The trade should be of reasonably equivalent value.

While it may pop up in conversation now and then, “quid pro quo” is most commonly found in the context of legal discussions, especially when it comes to contracts, investing and other sorts of business transactions. The exchange is said to be reasonably fair where both parties are getting something of value. For instance, if George designs a website for Harry and Harry paints George’s house, you might call that a quid pro quo.

Similarly, George’s Trucking might use the storage facilities of Harry’s Warehouses. In exchange, Harry’s Warehouses can transport some of their goods via George’s Trucking. No actual money is exchanged between the two companies, because they negotiated an agreement where both parties are receiving roughly equivalent value in services. This is a type of quid pro quo agreement that is sometimes called a “soft dollar” agreement.

The term can come up in the context of a corruption case where an official is accused of taking bribes in exchange for providing certain favors. For instance, there was a recent news story coming out of Pennsylvania where the reporter said, “But to be prosecutable bribes, the transactions required a quid pro quo. But in this case, the supposed quid pro quo was laughable.”

You might also find “quid pro quo” used in the context of sexual harassment. If some sort of job benefit, like receiving preferred shifts or getting an increase in pay, is tied to performing sexual favors to a manager, supervisor or other superior, then this is called quid pro quo harassment. It’s the same if the same job benefits are unduly withheld due to a refusal to perform those sexual favors.

Realistically, it’s quite unlikely that you’ll use “quid pro quo” in casual conversation, but the next time you see it mentioned in a news story about a corrupt government official or an agreement between businesses, you’ll know what it means.