Which Word Wednesday: Pitiable vs. Pitiful

By August 15, 2012 language No Comments

As I wrote this week’s Mixed Signals article for Christ and Pop Culture, I got stuck on a word quandary of the difference between pitiable and pitiful. I turned them over in my brain, trying to determine the correct word for the context. I had to look it up (I think I got it right! Read my column tomorrow and see what you think.)—and that qualifies as a perfect Which Word Wednesday candidate. Here are the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

pitiable :: adjective
deserving or arousing pity

pitiful :: adjective
deserving or arousing pity

This may be a WWW first: The definitions match! Whoa! But then when I checked my reference books, I found slight variations for using one over the other depending on the context.

Ron Evans explains it like this in The Artful Nuance:

“What is pitiable either deserves or excites pity or evokes pity mingled with contempt (especially because of inadequacy). . . . Pitiful describes what excites pity or, sometimes, commiseration because it is felt to be deeply pathetic.”1

Some examples are in order. Evans gives two:

“The teacher was angered by the student’s pitiable excuse for not completing his homework.”

“We were saddened by her pitiful financial situation.”

I’m thinking that pitiable has an a, and it is when there is pity laced with anger, while pitiful evokes a heart full of sympathy for the person.

What’s my WWW verdict? If you are irritated by another’s inadequacy, use pitiable. If you are sympathetic toward another’s inadequacy, use pitiful.

What’s your verdict? Do these two words confuse you? Do you more often feel irritated or sympathetic toward the inadequacies of another? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 158.

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