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Impelled vs. Compelled: Here’s How You Tell’em Apart

Impelled vs. Compelled: Here’s How You Tell’em Apart

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The English language is filled with similar words that can have different meanings. That is why this West Germanic language can be so confusing for beginners.

For instance, fortuitous and fortunate have two different meanings, and torturous has a very different definition than tortuous.

One reason there are so many words that are so similar yet so different is that the English language is a mutt.

It has elements of Latin, Danish, Norse, Greek, and many more. So, is it any wonder that many newcomers to the language struggle with its finer points?

Today, we will look at two words that you wouldn’t be faulted for mixing up. Not only do these words sound the same, but their meanings are also quite close to one another.

Today’s words are “compelled” and “impelled.”
Impelled vs. Compelled Pin

What is the difference between impelled and compelled?

Whereas both “compelled” and “impelled” mean moving someone or having them do something they might not originally want, the two words differ in how this end is achieved.

On the one hand, “compel” involves constraining someone or coercing them somehow in order to force them to yield.

On the other hand, “impel” means to offer a strong incentive or motive to someone else to entice them to yield.

The simplest explanation is that while “compelling” someone is forcing someone to do something using a stick, “impelling” someone boils down to encouraging them to comply through the use of a carrot.


A deeper look at the difference between the two words

As we just saw, both words revolve around making someone do something. Let’s take a look at a few examples to see these words in action.

The landlord compelled his tenant to pay the rent.

Here, the sentence is telling us that the landlord forced his tenant to doll up the rent.

However, it is also telling us that the landlord did this through coercion.

In other words, the landlord might have threatened to evict the tenant unless they came up with the cash, or the landlord might have gone to court and filed a suit.

In either case, the landlord was not nice about it.

The landlord impelled his tenant to pay the rent.

This sentence also lets us know that the landlord managed to get the tenant to comply and pay their dues.

Yet, unlike in the previous example, the landlord achieved this by providing the right incentives and convincing the tenant that it was in their best interest to fulfill their financial obligation.

For instance, the landlord might have offered the tenant a discount on next month’s rent provided that the tenant made the landlord whole.


Neither word has to apply to sentient beings

Even though both words are about forcing another human to comply, they can equally apply to objects and things. Moreover, the subjects of “compel” and “impel” don’t have to be living things in the first place.

A few examples will clarify matters.

Curiosity impels the journalist to investigate the matter further.

Here, the act of bringing about compliance is more figurative than literal. The idea is that, for the journalist, the reward of satisfying their curiosity is so strong that it trumps any fear of the possible consequences of the investigation.

Her morals impelled her to do the right thing.

Although this sentence isn’t all that different from the previous example, there is a reason we should inspect it all the same. You see, sometimes what impels people to take a certain action is their own moral compass.

Put differently, doing what we want and doing the right thing aren’t always the same, but, for many of us, the need to follow our morals and be good people can be strong enough to push us away from what we want. This is why “impelled” is right here.

That said, when it comes to “compelled,” morals have nothing to do with it. “Compelling”
someone to do something happens regardless of their morals, and the individual being coerced has no say in the matter.

Time compels us to grow up and mature.

In this example, the compulsion is also figurative. The sentence is telling us that time has a way of forcing us to grow up. Otherwise, those who don’t comply will face the repercussions that come with being immature in your 30’s and 40’s.

The wind impelled the ship.

Both the subject and object of the above sentence are inanimate objects. Nevertheless, the sentence is still correct.

This is just a fancy and metaphorical way of saying that the wind pushed the ship forward.

But, seeing as forward momentum is usually seen as a positive thing, at least as far as the captain of the ship is concerned, the word impelled works fine here.


Why do these two words sound so similar?

Alright, you now understand the difference between these two words, but is there a reason they share the last four letters, or is this just a coincidence?

Actually, there is a very interesting reason why these two words are so similar.

Remember how we said that English is a mixed language that contains a little bit of Latin? Well, this is where this becomes relevant.

“Pel,” the last three letters in “compel” and “impel,” come from the Latin verb “pellere,” which means “to drive.” This is the same kind of “driving” that you do when you “drive” sheep and have them move in a particular direction.

As a result, you might not be surprised to learn that there are other English words that share the same suffix and have similar meanings to “compel” and “impel.”

For example, the word “propel” means to drive or push something forwards. To “propel” something is to provide it with the

means to soar. The simplest case in point is the propeller in a plane, the engine that pushes the plane and gets it to fly.

Additionally, like “compel” and “impel,” “propel” can be used figuratively. If you “propel” someone, that means you are pushing them towards taking action.

However, the connotation here is positive, and rather than offering incentives, you would be offering encouragement.

Moreover, while both “compel” and “impel” imply that someone is being pushed to do something they normally wouldn’t want to do, “propel” paints a picture where the person you are “driving” already wants to perform the action in question but needs someone to “fuel” them and give them the necessary strength

Another word in the “pel” family is “dispel.” This means to drive something out or force it to scatter.

One of the most common expressions in the English language is to “dispel the rumors,” which means to cause them to scatter and rob them of any strength.

A fifth word is “expel,” which means to drive out. You’ve probably seen this word time and again.

The simplest example is “the country expelled the invaders,” a sentence the likes of which you are bound to run into when reading a history book. It just means that the country kicked the invaders out.

The last word in the “pel” family we will look at today is “repel.” It means to push something or drive it away.

You’ll come across the word when buying “bug repellent,” which drives bugs away from you and protects you from their bites.


The beauty of the English language

There are many words in the English language that can be broken down into smaller components, each of which has its own meaning and connotations.

Throughout this article, we have focused on two words that share a suffix but have different meanings.

We also scrutinized on how this suffix makes up other words.

With that in mind, you might be surprised to learn that the prefixes of both “compel” and “impel” are also meaningful.
For starters, the “com” in “compel” can be found in several other words, including “comply,” “complicate,” and “compute.”

In all these words, “com” means together or in association with.

Alternatively, the “im” in “impel” is the same prefix that you can find in “implode,” “implicate,” and “imply.”