Inauguration vs. Swearing In: What’s The Difference?

Every four years, the presidential inauguration captures the attention of people in the United States. Some tune in to the televised event for the eye-catching ceremony, crowds, and parties. Others are most looking forward to the swearing-in. Yet regardless of what people tune in for, the whole swearing in part is sometimes confused with the inauguration itself.

Which makes you wonder: what is the inauguration and what is the swearing-in? Or are they both the same thing?

While it’s true that presidential inaugurations in the United States include a swearing-in, the two terms are not one and the same. In fact, you don’t have to be an incoming president to receive an inauguration or even a swearing-in.

What is an inauguration?

At the heart of any inauguration is the verb inaugurate, which means “to make a formal beginning of,” or “to place in office formally and ceremonially.” It comes from Latin and was first recorded in English around 1595–1605. That formal ceremony to inaugurate a person, place, or thing is called an inauguration, which was first recorded 1560–70.

Inaugurations aren’t limited to US presidents. There’s a long list of subjects—from entities to events—that can be at the center of an inauguration. A ribbon-cutting ceremony can serve as the inauguration for a new building, for example.

Inaugurations are important because they’re the official start of something new. The president-elect isn’t the president until Inauguration Day when they take the oath of office (which has everything to do with swearing in and little to do with the other Inauguration Day festivities, but more on that later). When that happens, exactly, has changed over time. March 4 was the original date that Congress set for the president-elect to take the oath, but that changed to January 20 with the 20th Amendment in 1937.

An inauguration, in short, is a ceremony that marks the beginning of something new. When it comes to putting someone in the office of the president (or any other office for that matter), there’s one crucial, binding part of the inauguration: the swearing-in.

What is a swearing-in?

A swearing-in is “an official ceremony where a person takes an oath of office, allegiance, etc.” The term was first recorded around 1890–95. The swearing-in ceremony is defined by an action. While the term swearing-in is a noun, the verb to swear someone in means to “administer a legal or official oath.”

The swearing-in is a ceremony that marks a new position just like an inauguration, but unlike an inauguration, swearing in refers specifically to when someone promises to take an action. Since 1884, the president-elect has recited this oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Learn more about the history of the presidential oath of office here.

In the case of the US president and others in official government office, a swearing-in is one part of the inauguration along with balls, gatherings, and other events.

How to use inauguration and swearing-in

Whether you’re celebrating the first day of someone’s new job (the president or otherwise) or bearing witness to someone officially swearing in with an oath of office, you’re going to want to make sure you use the right word to describe the occasion. The simplest way to make sure you’re getting it right is to take note of the action being taken.

When you’re talking about an inauguration, you’re referring to a kick-off event. It doesn’t matter what it is for, and there are no required actions other than the inauguration being a mark that something new is starting, like a job or a location that’s newly open for business.

A swearing-in, on the other hand, requires a specific action: an oath. Sometimes a swearing-in happens at an inauguration, but not always. It doesn’t matter what the oath is to—a president makes an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, while others might make an oath to an organization like a sorority or fraternity.

And if that swearing-in is surrounded by inauguration festivities, well, all the more fun for those involved.

Being elected president is no small feat. Would that be a great "assent" or "ascent"?

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