The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Common Mistakes and Commonly Confused Words > sympathy vs. empathy
sympathy vs. empathy
What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?
While the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of sympathy and empathy are all different, they are each similar enough that the two words are very often confused in both speech and writing.
The older of the two, sympathy, originally meant “a relationship, harmony, or affinity between certain things or people.” In modern English, sympathy more commonly means “a feeling of pity, sorrow, or regret in reaction to another person’s distress or misfortune,” or “support for or agreement with an opinion, position, cause, etc.” For example:
- “I’m so sorry for your loss; you have my deepest sympathies.”
- “It came to light that he had been in sympathy with the rebel cause.”
Empathy is a newer term, originally referring to the act of projecting one’s feelings, attitudes, or emotions onto an object, especially a piece of art. In modern English, it is more often used to describe the ability to understand and identify with the perspective, motivations, emotions, or experiences of another person. For example:
- “She has a great deal of empathy for the other children in class, and is always able to understand why they’re upset.”
The difference can seem a bit subtle, but it’s important to know when each word is appropriate to use. When you have sympathy for someone, you are expressing your own regret or condolences for someone else’s misfortune. When you have empathy for someone, you are able to understand at a fundamental level the emotions he or she is experiencing or the perspective he or she holds.
Finally, both sympathy and empathy can be made into verbs using the suffix “-ize,” typically followed by the preposition with. These verbs are frequently confused as well, but their difference in meaning remains the same as their noun base words. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see this difference more clearly:
- “I really do sympathize with your troubles, but I cannot grant any further extensions on the loan.”
- “The president was criticized for seeming to sympathize with the rebel cause.”
- “Having spent years as a fast food worker, I can empathize with anyone who works long hours for too little pay.”
- “Even though the main character is very flawed and often unlikable, the reader is able to empathize with him after seeing the story unfold from his point of view.”
There’s no easy way to remember which word is correct in a given sentence, but here’s a mnemonic trick to help keep the two words separate in your mind:
- When you have sympathy for someone, you feel sorry for them.
- When you have empathy for someone, you can understand what it feels like to experience their emotions.
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