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Sanction this post

Sanctions are having a moment. The word has become synonymous with the war in Ukraine, and the complex legal mechanism has entered the mainstream vernacular. Compliance professionals need a nuanced understanding of international laws and regulations. But there is another area that requires a nuanced understanding — the English language.

Here are two definitions of “sanction” from Miriam-Webster, when used as a verb:

to give effective or authoritative approval or consent to, or

to impose a sanction or penalty upon.

Weird, right?

Sanction is a contronym — a word that has contradictory or opposite meanings depending on the context of how it’s used.

English has many contronyms. Other examples include: literally (actually, figuratively), buckle (connect, break), and cleave (join, divide).

Usually, the context clarifies the intended meaning, and news outlets typically use the second definition of sanction (“to impose a sanction or penalty upon”). However, ambiguity can creep in when dealing with delicate situations where reader or writer bias can influence the definition.

For example:

U.S. sanctions Russia over war with Ukraine. 

U.S. sanctions Ukraine over war with Russia.

Depending on subjective factors influencing the writer or reader, these two sentences could mean the same thing, they could be opposites, or they could be both at the same time.

The meaning of sanction has less ambiguity when used as a noun, again from Miriam-Webster:

a formal decree, or

an economic or military coercive measure adopted usually by several nations in concert for forcing a nation violating international law to desist or yield to adjudication.

When “impose a sanction” is used (making sanction a noun by using the verb’s definition), the meaning in context becomes more clear, and ambiguity is generally avoided.

U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia over war with Ukraine.

With the word “imposed” (i.e., forced), the context strongly implies the negative meaning of sanctions.

Why is this important?

Communication is a vital aspect of compliance, and effective communication means removing ambiguity whenever possible. It’s important that everyone in your organization is literally reading the same thing. 

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