Tolerance vs. toleration

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Tolerance is a broadly defined noun with applications in science, medicine, and mechanics, in addition to its common use referring to one’s acceptance of others’ rights, beliefs, and practices. Toleration is mainly a less common variant of tolerance, though there are qualifications to this that we’ll outline below. It was once the more common form, but this changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this period, the words initially began to differentiate with tolerance taking on the newer, more esoteric senses in science, medicine, etc., but as tolerance became more common in these uses, it gradually began to encroach on toleration‘s long-held territory. Today, toleration‘s last refuge is in writing on religion, where it continues in a long tradition.

Toleration also comes up often in reference to reluctant sorts of tolerance. Think cats and dogs living together, neighboring peoples who were recently at war with each other, or law-enforcement agencies that look the other way on minor traffic offenses. This sense probably came about because tolerance, a defining quality of a progressive modern society, has positive connotations, while toleration of this sort is not positive, but thorny and precarious.

Toleration has also recently been defined as a particular act of tolerance, but we’re having trouble finding 21st-century examples that bear this out (which is not to say they’re not out there somewhere—we’ll add them if we find them).

Finally, there is also the view that toleration is a tolerance backed by law or judicial precedent. There is a good basis for this, as religious toleration has often been imposed by law while a spirit of tolerance cannot be forced on anyone, but the distinction isn’t consistently borne out in general usage.


In these sentences, toleration refers to a reluctant or tense tolerance:

His “mild sway” included the toleration – among the native though not the European population – of the opium trade and of slavery. [Financial Times]

Their quarrels were over issues like Mahathir’s toleration of corruption, but the basic problem was that Mahathir did not tolerate dissent. [New Zealand Herald]

Society has developed a position of tolerating even extremist speech, not because of any inherent value in that speech but in hope that the attitude of toleration so developed will carry over to other areas. [Saving Our Children from the First Amendment, Kevin W. Saunders]

The IOM panel said our abysmal showing likely has multiple causes, including … our toleration of much higher rates of poverty and inequality than in other wealthy countries. [Consumer Reports]

And while toleration is certainly not wrong in the following examples, there is no reason it could not give way to the more common and more broadly defined tolerance:

Normally the university title of chief diversity officer entails someone with a toleration for views that differ from their own. [In the Capital]

Ashoka believed both in toleration of people themselves and in toleration of their beliefs and ideas. [The Clash Within, Martha Nussbaum]

This goes further, he asserts, than a moderate secularism that allows a generous toleration of all religious viewpoints. [Christian Today]

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