Grammar 7 min read

Quid Pro Quo: What it is and how to use it, a Quick Guide

Quid pro quo is a Latin term that translates to something for something in English. People often use the term to indicate an exchange of goods or services for a favor or advantage.

See how to use quid pro quo, and discover why this Latin term found itself at the forefront of American media in 2019.

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Main Takeaways

  • Quid pro quo translates to something for something.
  • The phrase refers to an exchange of goods or services for a favor or advantage.
  • A quid pro quo can form the basis of legal cases in politics and sexual harassment claims.
  • Quid pro quo is a legal requirement for contracts to be enforceable.
  • Bribery is a specific type of quid pro quo.
  • The 2019 Ukraine scandal involving President Donald Trump brought quid pro quo into mainstream use.
  • Other phrases for quid pro quo include tit for tat, this for that, and trade-off.
  • Derived from the Latin quid pro quo, quid is a slang term for the British pound.

Anyone who’s seen Silence of the Lambs has heard the term quid pro quo. If you’re a fan of the classic 1991 thriller, you can probably hear Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, saying, Quid pro quo, Clarice. Quid pro quo.”

But what exactly does that mean?

A squid and man holding money peeking from behind the text
Fun fact: “Squid pro quo” is a barter system used in remote communities. It involves exchanging of squid and other mollusks for other products and services.

When Hannibal Lecter offered Clarice Starling a quid pro quo in Silence of the Lambs, he indeed wanted something for something. Ultimately, Clarice traded her deepest, darkest secrets for Lecter’s help to catch a serial killer. Thankfully, not all quid pro quos are quite as dramatic.

The Meaning of Quid Pro Quo

Like many words and phrases of Latin origin, quid pro quo has found a place in the English language. It indicates an exchange of goods, favors, or services for some advantage. It translates roughly to this for that or something for something and means one thing in exchange for another.

The town doctor accepted crates of fruit and vegetables as payment for medical services in a generous quid pro quo.

The said term is a popular expression in fields where exchanges are common, such as finance, law, and politics. It may take on specific meanings in these areas.

English Phrases for Quid Pro Quo

This official-sounding word may not be a comfortable fit in most people’s conversational vocabulary. If you want to trade Latin for more colloquial English, several expressions convey a similar sentiment:

  • Tit for tat
  • Back and forth
  • Trade-off
  • If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours
  • This for that
  • A favor for a favor
  • One hand washes the other
Jake thought it was a good trade-off. He would pay for the lodging if she made all the phone calls to arrange the trip.
Listen. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Make me one of your famous apple pies, and I’ll make sure you get a spot in the baking contest.
A worker receiving vegetable from a woman in exchange for his services.
Research suggests that the phrase “quid pro quo” made its way into the English language during the 16th century, at a time when doctors and apothecaries (pharmacists) used to trade medicine.

Quid Pro Quo in the Field of Medicine

Quid pro quo‘s origin dates back to medieval times when apothecaries sold ingredients to create medical remedies. At times, these early pharmacies didn’t have the required items and would have to offer permissible substitutes.

In modern times, the expression has expanded to include exchanges of all kinds. It’s now used across a variety of areas, including law and politics.

What Does Quid Pro Quo Mean in the Legal World?

Although the legal definition of quid pro quo is the same as its general meaning, it can have specific applications in the common law. In fact, an enforceable contract between individuals (excluding merchants) requires a quid pro quo. In this situation, parties must exchange something of value to indicate an intent to adhere to the contract. It’s also known as mutual consideration.

Trade-off is another term for quid pro quo. Two men are trading off services. The man wearing a chef hat and apron, while holding a pan, is telling the guy wearing a worker jumpsuit and holding a mop, that he'll do the cooking and him, the cleaning.
Trade-off is another term for quid pro quo, and it’s commonly exercised in many situations like when you’re doing chores at home with your sibling or partner.

1. Legal Applications for Politics

Quid pro quo can also form a foundation for legal cases surrounding politics. It refers to the use of political power for personal gain. This is a violation of the law.

In exchange for contributions to his reelection campaign, the governor promised to push through statewide legislation legalizing fracking. His campaign manager warned him that it could be considered quid pro quo.

2. Legal Applications in Sexual Harassment Cases

In sexual harassment cases, quid pro quo refers to a situation where an employer expects sexual favors as a condition of employment or benefits. It’s also known as an abuse of power.

Her boss had made it very clear whoever wore the shortest skirts would get the promotion. Jennifer recognized quid pro quo—and sexual harassment—when she saw it.

3. Legal Applications for Criminals in Court

Quid pro quo can also apply to individuals charged with a crime, providing a reduced sentence in exchange for a confession or vital information.

The court offered him a quid pro quo. All he had to do was name his drug suppliers, and he could avoid jail time.

Is Bribery a Synonym for Quid Pro Quo?

Quid pro quo means “something for something” and is a neutral exchange. Bribery is a specific form of quid pro quo that oversteps legal or moral boundaries. It’s defined as a transfer, acceptance, or solicitation of something of value that directly influences the actions of someone in public office. It can also apply to someone who has a legal duty.

A man in suit taking bribe money from a worker. A bribe is a type of quid pro quo.
Bribery is a kind of quid pro quo, but not all quid pro quo is bribery.

The recipient and the offering party can both incur criminal charges in this white-collar crime. Soliciting a bribe is illegal and can result in criminal charges regardless of whether the bribe is completed.

Every pine is a tree, but not every tree is a pine. In much the same way, every bribe is a quid pro quo, but not every quid pro quo is a bribe.

Quid Pro Quo Takes Center Stage: President Trump and the 2019 Ukraine Scandal

This Latin term recently found its way into mainstream vocabulary, thanks to President Trump and the 2019 Ukraine scandal. The events that took place ultimately led to the impeachment of the 45th president of the United States.

Two quid pro quos formed the heart of the impeachment trial:

1. A White House Meeting in Exchange for Investigations

The first alleged quid pro quo involved a potential White House meeting between Ukrainian President Zelensky and American President Trump. The meeting would happen in exchange for two investigations:

  1. Ukraine looking into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
  2. An investigation of a Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden, son of Trump’s political rival Joe Biden, sat on the board of directors.

2. Military Aid in Exchange for Investigations

The second alleged quid pro quo in the Trump/Ukraine scandal involved almost $400 million to aid Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. The funding, which had been frozen, would be released when Ukraine publicly committed to the two investigations listed above.

The Quid in British Slang

In Great Britain, the word quid is a slang term for the British pound, a unit of currency in the country. The term likely had its origins in quid pro quo, coming to Britain during the Roman occupation in the 1st through 5th centuries AD.

With its applications in law, politics, and pop culture, quid pro quo will probably remain a part of our language for the foreseeable future. Understanding the quid pro quo‘s uses may make it easier to follow current events, court cases, and even your favorite legal drama.

Quick Grammar Quiz About Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo Question #1

“Quid pro quo” is a Latin term that translates to ______.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. It indicates an exchange of goods, favors, or services for some advantage.

Quid pro quo Question #2

Which of these is an English expression for “quid pro quo”?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. All of these are English expressions for “quid pro quo.”

Quid pro quo Question #3

“Bribery” can be a form of “quid pro quo.”
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is TRUE. Bribery is a specific form of quid pro quo that oversteps legal or moral boundaries.

Quid pro quo Question #4

In British English, the word “quid” is a slang term for _____.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. “Quid” is a slang term for the British pound, a unit of currency in the country.

Quid Pro Quo
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Krista Grace Morris

Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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