When The New York Times ran with the front-page headline “Trump Urges Unity versus Racism,” many readers questioned the accuracy of this assertion, but none pointed to its glaring grammatical error—its misuse of versus. The fact that this mistake went unremarked may testify to its increasing prevalence.
More and more often, it seems, versus appears where against belongs. While one definition of versus is indeed “against,” the two words cannot always be used interchangeably. The headline should (from a purely grammatical standpoint) have read “Trump Urges Unity against Racism.” Why? Because when an action verb like “urges” directly precedes a pair of nouns set in opposition to each other, the nouns cannot be joined by versus.
In some cases, the misuse is obvious to the point of absurdity. It is unlikely, for instance, that anyone would write the following:
I leaned my back versus the wall.
In most cases, however, the misuse is less extreme but no less wrong. For instance:
The 2019 Women’s World Cup final pitted the United States versus the Netherlands.
In both cases, the pair of nouns (“my back” / “the wall” and “the United States” / “the Netherlands”) are preceded by a verb of action and should be joined by against.
This rule can also be explained using more strictly grammatical terms. If you are wondering whether to join two nouns, A and B, with against or versus, you can ask yourself if noun A is a direct object of the verb—that is, if it takes the action of the verb. If the answer is yes, then use against to join them. In the Times example, for instance, noun A, “Unity,” receives the action of the verb, “Urges.” Hence, against should be used here, not versus.
Here is an example of versus used correctly:
The novel explored the theme of nature versus nurture.
As you can see, the first noun in the pair joined by versus, “nature,” is not the direct object of the verb, “explored.” Rather, the word that receives the action of “explored” is “theme.” Hence, versus works fine.
Greve, Joan E. “New York Times Changes Front-Page Trump Headline after Backlash.” The Guardian, 6 Aug. 2019, www.theguardian.com/media/2019/aug/06/new-york-times-front-page-headline-changed.