Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 46: Warranty or Guarantee (This is not a Guarantee)

This week on Grammar Grater, we're looking at a couple words — guarantee and warranty — that not only cause a bit of grammatical confusion, but clearly spill over into the world of commerce. This topic was suggested by Rosa, a listener from Valencia, Venezuela.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, a guarantee is "an assurance that certain conditions will be fulfilled, especially that a product will be of a specified quality." Meanwhile, a warranty is defined as "a written guarantee promising to repair or replace an article if necessary within a specified period." Fowler's Modern English Usage presented some legal explanations for both words, but it got a bit confusing when under warranty it told us to "See GUARANTEE" and under guarantee it told us to "See WARRANTY."

We were flummoxed by the cross-references and the legal jargon ... so we called in a lawyer. Paul Muilenberg, a lawyer who specializes in matters of business law, was kind enough to help us understand the difference.

"It's actually a very good question," Muilenberg says. "I recognize a good question because the answer is very complicated."

Muilenberg says that from a strictly legal perspective, the words guarantee and warranty have been misused heavily in commerce and in everyday transactions, noting that the word guarantee is often used when warranty would be more appropriate. Legally speaking, the two words are distinct.

Using Black's Legal Dictionary as a reference, Muilenberg defines guarantee as a parallel agreement for performance of another's obligations. "So there are two agreements, essentially," Muilenberg says. "One, there's the primary agreement such as, 'I will pay back this loan.' Then there's a separate agreement where another person — say, a parent — will promise or guarantee that I will perform that obligation and if I don't, they will step in and perform it."

By contrast, Muilenberg defines warranty as a promise that a proposition of fact is true. For example, if a person were to buy a vacuum cleaner, it may come with a warranty that the vacuum cleaner will be free of defects for two years. A warranty is distinct from a guarantee in that there is only one agreement. "That promise is part and parcel of the agreement to purchase the vacuum cleaner," Muilenberg says. "I don't have to examine the vacuum cleaner intensively. I can rely on the promise of the seller that the fact it's free of defects is true."

Despite their legal definitions, the two words tend to be used more casually in everyday speech. "A warranty is actually what most people consider a guarantee in common usage of the word," Muilenberg says. "So for example, when you say Satisfaction Guarantee or Money Back Guarantee, those technically are warranties from a legal perspective."

Nevertheless, common parlance may have some legal clout.

"Quite frankly, common usage has now conferred upon guarantee some definitions that would be better attributable to a warranty from a legal perspective," Muilenberg says. "And common usage within the industry is a fair authority to cite — for lawyers or anybody else."

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; and Black's Law Dictionary.

Music from this Episode: "Drive My Car" by The Beatles; "Bittersweet Samba" by Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass. "Bright Future in Sales" by Fountains of Wayne.

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