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A Recurring Use of ‘Occurring’

Alyce Guinn today raised the following question about a new usage slipping into North American speech:

“There seems to be a new word, or a modification of an old word in use these days. It is occuring. I remember it used to be reoccurring. That meant that something that had happened was happening again. How can something occur and then when it happens again still be occuring?”

This is an interesting question. Of course, reoccurring is completely redundant given the existence of recur, so let’s rephrase the question to whether recurring is necessary.

Occur means “to happen once”; to recur is to happen again or happen many times. Obviously, we need these two words since their meanings are different.

Once you add -ing to them, however, the difference in meaning at least partially disappears. Why? The suffix -ing converts the verb into a present participle which designates an on-going action. Now, on-going action can be action in progress (a growing fear) or one that is repeated (pounding headache). So, when you add -ing to occur, the result is a form of the verb that refers to an action in progress or a repeated action, which is the same meaning as recurring, for example, a (currently) occurring pain or a (continually) occurring pain.

Even though occurring has both meanings, however, it is not a good idea to use this word in both because of possible confusion. Since we have recurring and since it has only one of the meanings occurring has, it is better to use occurring in reference to an action in progress and recurring for repeated actions.

One Response to “A Recurring Use of ‘Occurring’”

  1. Daniel Says:

    Just to be a pedant: ‘occurring’ is not just the present participle, but also the gerund of occur (the form of a verb that acts like a noun). When it is a gerund it does not necessarily mean it is in progress or repeated; it just is the nominalisation of the verb.

    e.g. ‘The chance of that occurring is slim.’ does not refer to an action in progress, or a repeated action but just the act of occurring.

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