Discriminate or Discriminate against? (Verb vs. Phrasal Verb)

The Quick Answer

The phrasal verb “discriminate against” (someone / a group) is a common expression. Often students forget the preposition “against”, and thereby make a mistake like this:

  • ✘ The employer discriminated his female employees. (Incorrect example in the active voice)
  • ✘ The workers said they were discriminated. (Incorrect example in the passive voice)

If you want to say that a person or group of people were treated unfairly because of their sex, gender, ethnicity, age, or a disability, then you need to add the preposition ‘against’.

  • The employer discriminated against his female employees. (Incorrect example in the active voice)
  • The workers said they were discriminated against. (Incorrect example in the passive voice)
Old hands typing on a laptop

Some companies discriminate against older job applicants.

Note: If the discrimination (special treatment based on sex, gender, age, etc.) is meant to provide something positive, then you can change the preposition against to the phrase in favor of:

  • Recent hiring at Johnson Robotics has discriminated in favor of women and ethnic minorities.
  • The college admissions policy discriminates in favor of people from minority backgrounds.

That’s the quick answer. In case you are wondering what the verb discriminate (without against) means, please read below.

Verb Meaning: To Discriminate (Non-Phrasal Verb)

Definition: to recognize a difference; to differentiate

To discriminate between two things is to recognize that they are different. (This does not have a negative meaning, such as to discriminate against someone.)


  • Babies can discriminate colors by two to three months of age.
  • The child was not mature enough to discriminate good from bad.
  • New technology can discriminate cancerous cells in humans.
  • Police dogs can discriminate the smells of different illegal substances.

As you can see, modals of ability (can/could/able to, etc) are often used with this verb.

Often the preposition between is added when you are discriminating (differentiating) between two things:

  • New technology can discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells.
  • The child was not mature enough to discriminate between good and bad.

This verb is used more frequently in academic English or technical writing. In informal English, the synonyms differentiate or distinguish are more common.

Quiz: Discriminate vs. Discriminate against

Select the appropriate response.

  1. Dogs can  emotional expressions in humans.
  2. The company didn’t hire Amir because he was Muslim. In other words, the company  him.
  3. Some colleges make an effort to accept more minorities. In other words, they  minority applicants.
  4. You can  between Lacinato and Siberian kale by looking at the color of the leaves.
Show Answers

1. discriminate
2. discriminated against
3. discriminate in favor of
4. discriminate

I hope this lesson taught you to discriminate between these two verbs. If you find a mistake or have a question, then please leave a comment below.

— Written by Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (copyright)

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One comment on “Discriminate or Discriminate against? (Verb vs. Phrasal Verb)

  1. Johan (Posted on 9-4-2021 at 23:10) Reply

    Helpful lesson, greeting from Ecuador. :)

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