• 2-minute read
  • 22nd August 2020

Word Choice: Empathy vs. Sympathy

The words ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ are both related to how we respond to other people’s feelings. But there is a subtle difference between these terms, so you won’t want to mix them up in your writing. So to help you avoid errors, in this post, we explain how to use both words correctly.

Empathy (Sharing Someone’s Feelings)

The noun ‘empathy’ refers to an ability to share and understand the emotions of others as if they were your own:

I felt very scared after my home was burgled, so I have great empathy for anyone whose house is broken into.

We often refer to this as knowing what it is like to walk in ‘someone else’s shoes’, where we can imagine ourselves feeling another person’s feelings and sharing their point of view as if we were them.

The verb form of this word, meanwhile, is ’empathise’.

Sympathy (Feeling Sorry for Someone)

‘Sympathy’ is also a noun and is also related to feelings. But this word refers to feeling sorry for someone else rather than sharing in their troubles:

We feel great sympathy for the victims of crime.

Here, for example, we might feel bad for the victims, but we don’t know how it feels to be in their place. This is why we often send a ‘sympathy’ card to someone who is grieving over the loss of a loved one:

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Our deepest sympathy on the loss of your father.

In addition, to have ‘sympathy’ for someone’s views or cause can mean that you agree with or support their ideas:

I have sympathy for his desire to reform the tax system.

The verb form of this word, meanwhile, is ‘sympathise’.

Summary: Empathy or Sympathy?

These words are both nouns and both refer to how we respond to other’s emotions or troubles. However, there is a key difference:

  • Empathy refers to sharing someone’s feelings as if they were your own.
  • Sympathy refers to feeling sorry for someone, but not sharing their feelings or point of view as if it were your own.

Hopefully, this will help you avoid mixing up these words. But if you’d like any more help with your spelling or word choice in a document, don’t forget our proofreading service is available 24/7.

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