First of all, is there a meaningful difference between these words?
Assist means to give help or support, especially as a subordinate or supplement; aid: The clerk assisted the judge by looking up related precedents. Her breathing was assisted by a respirator. An assist is also a mechanical device providing aid.
Help is a synonym of assist without being associated with subordination or mechanical devices.
So, while they are mostly interchangeable, there is a small difference. In a strict sense, assistance implies a subordination of the assistant in a way that help does not.
Webster’s describes the difference in this way: “HELP carries a strong implication of advance toward an objective (every little bit helps)…. ASSIST distinctively imputes a secondary role to the assistant or a secondary character to the assistance (a deputy assists rather than aids his superior).”
I’m not a big fan of assist. In fact, it made our list of Ten Words We’d Like to See Less Of. People use assist in their business writing because they think it makes them sound professional. They believe assist shows more respect than help, that somehow help implies a degree of uselessness on the part of the person being helped.
But preferring assist to help out of deference to the reader is misguided and comes at too great a cost. Overall, the benefits of using help far outweigh the respectfulness of assist.
First of all, in 95% of business writing the subtle difference in meaning is lost. Okay I made that statistic up. Still, while assist points to the subordination of the assistant, using help is far from disrespectful.
Secondly, help is a more connective word, and if your purpose is to build or strengthen your relationship with your reader, help is the better, more conversational choice. Face to face you’re more likely to say, “Can I help you?” than “Can I assist you?” And I personally would much rather have your help than your assistance. Your helpfulness brings you closer to me and connects us on an human level. Assistance is more abstract and creates a distance between us.
Thirdly, the oldest words are always the best, and help is older than assist. Help comes from Old English, while assist is from Middle English via Old French and Latin.
Finally, the word assist often causes secondary problems when used by writers who adopt a formal style with the intention of sounding professional. Consider this sentence: “Easier access to productivity statistics would assist management in the monitoring of staff performance and the distribution of work.”
It’s turgid and bloated, full of noun phrases that weigh it down. It’s easy to lighten it by changing assist to help. With that tiny adjustment it becomes natural to turn the noun phrases (monitoring of staff performance, distribution of work) into verbs.
The sentence becomes ”Easier access to productivity statistics would help management monitor staff performance and distribute work.” Fewer words, more vigorous verbs and a more conversational tone. There’s no loss of meaning or respectfulness and it makes for a stronger sentence overall.
Please do your bit: Make the written world a warmer, livelier place by replacing assist with help whenever you can.