It Happened to Me

The Difference Between "Candidate" and "Incumbent"

The Oxford English Dictionary in all its glory.

Yesterday, I was asked to post a job announcement on the Tucows Blog and this blog. I did it near the end of the day by cutting, pasting and then applying a little formatting for the web. I didn’t pay much attention to the copy and got called on it by an eagle-eyed reader:

I love you, but please don’t be part of using the word “incumbent” that way.

Incumbent got started in job ads as a way to describe what the old guy did when you didn’t really have a good handle on what the job should be called: “The incumbent drinks a lot of coffee and fills out TPS reports. He’s retiring next month and we need to hire someone to sit in his office.” Now every HR person in the world seems to think it is a synonym for “job-seeker”, which is precisely, exactly, wrong.

Stop it. Please.

After calming the Ginger Ninja down (she read the comment and asked “Who is this person who loves you? And a grammarian too! Who is this person?!”), I looked at the copy of the job posting and there it was — the word “incumbent” used in the wrong way:

The successful incumbent will have the challenging opportunity to work on Tucows’ vast and complex high availability system spread across multiple data centers, servers and operating systems.

This is embarrassing. I should’ve caught that one. I must be slipping in my old age.

I find it hard to believe that someone can fail to understand what “incumbent” means at a time when the news, both local and international, is saturated with stories about upcoming elections. The United States has midterm elections next Tuesday, and Accordion City will have a mayoral election on the 13th. I’m almost certain that the word “incumbent” is being used — complete with context — in those stories.

Let me make it clear: “incumbent” refers to the person who currently holds the position.

Here are some examples: George Bush is the incumbent president of the United States. David Miller is the mayor of Toronto; in the mayoral election, he is the incumbent.

Perhaps it’s the use of the word “incumbent” in elections that has led to confusion. Maybe people think that it’s synonymous with the word that should’ve been used in the job posting: candidate.

I decided to see if what the commenter said was true: “Now every HR person in the world seems to think it is a synonym for ‘job-seeker'”. I entered the terms job, posting and incumbent into Google and found job posting after job posting that used the word “incumbent” when the word “candidate” should have been used instead:

  • Reporting to the Director of Communications, the incumbent will be responsible for the creation of a wide range of publications and other materials to support the University of Lethbridge’s fund-raising initiatives…
  • The incumbent must possess the following qualifications…
  • The incumbent will be trained in methods for characterizing pharmaceutical aerosols from various drug delivery systems…
  • The incumbent must posses a valid class 5 driver license…

Those were just a few example from the first page of Google results. It seems that HR people all over the ‘net are making the same mistake. I’m going to set our own HR team straight later today. (I’ll do it nicely, partly because I’m a nice guy, partly because I have to hit them up for my job referral bonus for bringing in two employees.)

To the alert anonymous reader who spotted the mistake: thanks, Vocabulary Ranger!

6 replies on “The Difference Between "Candidate" and "Incumbent"”

While I think the use of “incumbent” in job postings is pedantic (and therefore a bad thing), I don’t think it’s always incorrect.

Say I apply for a job and get it. Then I will be the incumbent. I will be responsible for the creation of a wide range of publications and other materials to support the University of Lethbridge’s fund-raising initiatives.

So some job ads use the term correctly, and others don’t.

Anyway, I applaud your drive to get rid of this term in job postings. All we need now is a global-replace mechanism that operates across the entire Web.

While I don’t think of myself as grammatically anal, I do expect a certain level of proficiency and competence in grammar for those in professional positions, for sending out announcements, etc. One example, incorrect usage of a fancy word to sound smart, was covered in your post. Another that drives me up the wall, using “I” after a preposition, instead of the required object “me”. For example, “Thank you for sharing this special day with Bobo and I”. It’s supposed to be “with Bobo and ME”, ME is the object of the preposition WITH. Using “I” as an object of a preposition just sounds like an attempt to look “smart”, but instead exposes the person for the pleb that he/she is. OK, I admit it, I am a grammar snob. Even if I do make mistakes.

If the job ad reads “The incumbent will fill out TPS forms” it would be OK. That’s the future tense, when the position will be filled. Your ad copy can be interpreted like that.

My pet grammarial peeve: Less vs. fewer. See for an egregious counter-example. This is a site for school kids. For shame.


The first and third commenters are, in a word, wrong. Incumbent just can’t be used in a non-specific future tense like that. It is a very specific word: the CURRENT office-holder. It does not refer to any past office-holder, nor to any future office-holder. There may or may not be an incumbent for any office, but there is never more than one. There’s no such thing as a future incumbent. The incumbent is the current office-holder, as of the time period of the sentence.

“GWB, the incumbent, will remain in office until January 2009.” Okay. Time period of sentence = now, incumbent = current office-holder.

“We’re creating a new job opening today – no one currently has the job. The incumbent will be a black male between age 45 and 60.” No. There is no incumbent, and future past-looking is not correct grammar. Time period of sentence = now, incumbent = no one.

“In 2009, we’re phasing this job out. Whoever the incumbent is at that time will have to get a new job.” Okay. Time period of sentence = 2009, incumbent = office holder at that time.

“The successful incumbent will have the challenging opportunity….” No. Time period = now, incumbent = no one.

If you cannot replace “incumbent” with “current office-holder” in your sentence, you are not using “incumbent” correctly.

This is the most precise explanation of the word “incumbent” that I have come across i.e. the COMMENT posted as ANONYMOUS dated November 8, 2006 at 8:54 am

I’ve ended up here because I’ve been offered a position that I applied for (which I have verbally accepted) and on the job contract that’s been sent to me it has “incumbent initials” on the bottom of each page. I’m not replacing an incumbent. I’m doing casual work in a pool of employees. So I assumed I must be the incumbent who was meant to initial the form, however it didn’t gel with what I understood the word to mean. I haven’t started work yet and if I don’t sign the form I never will. So maybe this (large government) employer is using the term incorrectly as well.

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