Grammar Moses: How many instances of people mistaking 'incidents' for 'incidence'?

It's 3:36 p.m. on Friday, and this lede is all I have to show for this column so far.

I'm sure you can smell my desperation for a topic.

Sometimes running a newsroom during election season gets in the way of writing pithy things about grammar.

Enter Patt Baumann, the love of my life and occasional column saver.

"Oooh, write about the difference between 'incidents' and 'instances,'" she said.

Patt tells me she hears people use "incidents" and "instances" interchangeably. I'd never given that much thought, but it's a good idea.

"Incident" - as a noun - is an occurrence or event.

Think about a fender-bender - something rather inconsequential.

I dislike it when people describe a murder or a bank robbery as an "incident," because something "incidental" is not the major part of something. It's a minor consequence.

Still, police will file "incident reports" on things of great consequence and those of little.

The difference between "instance" and "incident" is tricky to define.

Think of an "incident" as one case of something gone wrong and "instance" as occurrences of something.

Say you're visiting your doctor to complain about foot pain.

Once the doc has looked at the bluish, puffy blob with toes on it at the end of your leg, he or she will try to ascertain whether the injury is acute or chronic.

If you got your heel stuck in a sewer grate and sprained your ankle, it's an acute injury, right?

If you have been taking tango lessons for three hours a night after work to prepare for your wedding and your feet are just plain worn out, that's chronic.

You tell the doctor it's too much dancing that's causing you distress.

The doc's next question ought to be how many "instances" of foot pain you experience in a given month.

I find it a lot easier to show than tell. I also find it a lot easier not to learn how to dance.

Knowing my love of homophones, you won't be surprised that I'll tell you the difference between "incidents" and "incidence."

This is something I hear people screw up all of the time. I occasionally hear TV newscasters refer to "several incidences" of something occurring when they mean "incidents."

"Incidence" describes the rate of something.

It's a statistical measure - of new occurrences of something that develop over a period of time. Think of the rate of COVID infection or the number of car burglaries in a year's time.

Had enough?

I don't care. I'm just plowing ahead with the difference between "incidence" and "prevalence."

The "incidence" of COVID in the community is the rate at which people are getting sick.

The "prevalence" of COVID is the number of people in a community who have the virus.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at grammar Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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