Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

On the surface, the words “critique” and “criticism” sound like they are fundamentally the same. Someone is offering his or her opinion on something. That something could be a painting, a movie, a smartphone, a social event… just about anything. The person has evaluated this thing and he or she has something to say about it. However, it’s not quite so simple.

The most important difference between a “critique” and a “criticism” has to do with tone and intention. A criticism is inherently negative. The person is expressing at least some level of displeasure or disapproval of the thing (or person or situation) that is being criticized. The person has found faults, perceived or real. The person has found something he or she does not like for whatever reason.

While constructive criticism can certainly be helpful in showing how something can be improved, it is still pointing out what is wrong. It’s highlighting what is bad.

A critique is decidedly different. Instead of simply focusing on the negative, it aims to provide a detailed analysis. This can oftentimes be used in more of an academic, formal or official context, perhaps in regards to politics or philosophy. I have written a lot of product reviews over the years and my objective has always been to be fair and balanced.

In my reviews, I strive to provide a comprehensive critique of the product. I look for the good and the bad. I highlight the areas and features that should be commended, just as much as I seek out areas for improvement. A critique, in theory, is neither necessarily positive nor negative. It can be either or both. It can be neutral on balance.

The difference between the two words naturally extends to the different forms the words may take, like if you were to use them as verbs. Consider how you may interpret these two sentences:

  • Paul critiqued my essay.
  • Paul criticized my essay.

The first sentence gives no indication as to whether Paul had a generally positive or generally negative impression of my essay. The second sentence makes it immediately clear that Paul at least disliked my essay to some degree. He found something bad about it. A criticism passes judgement. A critique might not.

To this end, a movie critic may offer a comprehensive, critical analysis of a film. This critique might contain both praise and criticism, but the criticism cannot contain a critique.

Are there any other similar pairs of words you’d like to see analyzed and explored in a future Grammar 101 entry? Post a comment and I’ll consider adding it to the queue!