Recently, after I had edited a document for a client, the client got back to me to tell me that they had decided to replace all uses of the word choose in the document with the word select. I didn’t ask for the reason, but I suspect there was a feeling that select is slightly more formal and business-like than choose.
But wait a minute — are choose and select really equivalent?
At first glance, it seems to be the case. After all, there is no apparent difference in meaning between the following two sentences:
So far, so good. But now compare the following two sentences;
While the first option in this pair is fine, the second is not! English speakers will quite happily ‘choose to do something’ but will never ‘select to do something’. Why is this? The unacceptability of the second sentence is a reminder that, although they look like exact synonyms at first glance, choose and select actually have some subtle but important differences of meaning.
The key thing to remember is that we select something from a range of options. Implicit in the use of select is the idea of selecting FROM a number of different possibilities.
However, select is not used about the choice we make in a simple yes/no situation. Suppose Angela is trying to decide whether to buy a new bag or not. It’s a simple yes/no choice. We can describe the outcome like this:
But we cannot describe the outcome like this:
In fact, in this kind of sentence, the word choose is almost a synonym of the word decide — and this is never true of the word select.
In summary, be careful about your use of choose/select. Choose can be used to describe both the act of choosing from a range of options, and the act of making a yes/no decision. Select can only be used to describe the act of choosing from a range of options. If you want to be safe, choose choose!
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.