Nobody wants a disease to recur and nobody who has had a disease want a relapse—both cases are usually bad—but let’s think about how these two words differ.
People relapse and diseases recur.
“Recur” comes from Latin that means “to run back again,” so when something recurs, it happens again. A disease recurs.
- David worried that his cancer would recur.
- Lila’s recurring back injuries make it hard for her to work.
“Relapse” also comes from Latin, this time from a word that means “to slip or slide back.” When you relapse, you slip back to a previous state. A person relapses.
- Sarah’s family did all they could to keep her from having a relapse.
- Horatio’s doctor attributed his asthma relapse to air pollution.
Noun or Verb?
Also, “relapse” can be both a noun and a verb, but “recur” is only a verb. If you want to use “recur” as a noun, you need to use “recurrence.” Here are some more examples:
First, we’ll do “relapse.” The last two examples were “relapse” as a noun, and here’s another one:
Lauren worries a lot about having a relapse.
Here’s how you’d use it as a verb:
After Mom relapsed, we needed to hire in-home help.
Next, here’s “recur.” It’s a verb.
After Mom’s cancer recurred, we needed to hire in-home help.
And although “recur” often refers to diseases or conditions, you can also use it more broadly:
You’ll notice that nature themes recur in her writing.
If you want to use it as a noun, use “recurrence”:
Nature themes are a recurrence in her writing.
Garner’s Modern English Usage says that saying a disease relapses is an error. So remember that people relapse and diseases recur.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”