English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I've been searching the internet, but have not quite found a satisfactory explanation between an act and a deed.

Both seem to have kind of a meaning of something done, though through my google and etymology searching the only apparent difference i can find is that "act" slightly hints at something more in the process of being done. (although not necessarily)

Surely there should be more of a difference between the two words. If they mean the same thing surely there would be no need anymore for two words and i also know act and deed can not always be interchanged in sentences, but what is the difference exactly then?

I'm left utterly confused, hope someone can help me and explain the difference...

share|improve this question
Well, you do a deed but commit or perform an act. And thinking about it, an act is usually further specified (act of kindnes, act of vandalism, etc.) but a deed is not. – Kevin Nov 22 '13 at 15:04
He was caught in the act - while he was committing the ghastly deed – mplungjan Nov 22 '13 at 15:15

Surely there should be more of a difference between the two words. If they mean the same thing surely there would be no need anymore for two words

There are a lot of near synonyms in English, so this does not follow at all. It's particularly so when you consider that act entered the English language in the late Middle English period, from French, while deed was in the language from the very beginnings of Old English. Many, but not all, seeming redundancies in English vocabulary have a similar origin story.

It is true that there are differences in nuances. The primary one would be that an act would generally be need to be relatively remarkable before we would use the term deed. One can do a particularly brave or noble or dastardly or evil deed, but one can't really do a lazy or everyday or common deed. There's nothing technically wrong with the latter, but it wouldn't be an idiomatic use.

There are similarly some differences in what verbs and prepositions are used with either. One doesn't do an act, one cannot be in the deed of anything.

share|improve this answer
+1 I can't disagree with anything you've said, but I think the overlap is probably about 90%. – bib Nov 22 '13 at 18:01
Thank you greatly for your quick and extensive answer. As to regards the formulation of parts of my question I believe I have been too brief and a little bit unfortunate with expressing my thoughts regarding synonyms and the necessity for difference in these synonyms, and thus you are absolutely right in correcting my rather crude statement. Although I thought of trying to explain my comment more subtle, it became a rather lengthy essay and I rather would not divert this conversation, but rather like to focus on the issue at hand. – Flabbergasted Nov 23 '13 at 0:05

Both words have other meanings as nouns, not related to one another. e.g.Act of Parliament, Deed of Conveyance.

Moreover 'act' can be used as a verb, whilst 'deed' cannot. (At least not in this sense. Legally I think you can 'deed' property to someone'.)

The ODE (not OED) suggests a 'deed' is something you do intentionally, whereas it is possible to commit an involuntary 'act'. And as Jon Hanna points out they attract different verbs and pronouns.

share|improve this answer
Good point on the lack of involuntary deeds. I suspect it's related to what I said about deeds being only particularly notable acts; once cannot involuntarily be brave or nobel or evil. – Jon Hanna Nov 22 '13 at 17:06

Although I understand it is not common to respond to your own question, I deemed it appropriate to still post the following as such, as I did some extra research after I read the other responses. I did this in an attempt to further distinguish the two words.

As i reconstruct the meaning of both words with the help of the etymological dictionary it seems to me that an act historically seems to be slightly more associated with movement and a deed has an historical origin of putting something down, especially in the sense of laying something down/making a mark in history. In that sense it's also logical that it is a very much used word in the juridical sphere as a form of written contract (already in this sense in 14th century). Moreover it helps explain why doing a menial task as doing the laundry may not be seen as a deed, but declaring war on a different country can surely be seen as a deed (as that can be construed as a new contract/breaking of old contract).

act  (Proto Indo-European root is *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move")
deed (Proto Indo-European root is *dhetis, from *dhe- "place, put")

wasnt able to post the next part as a comment, so posting here. A few questions which I hope some other native English speaker can answer to further distinguish the two words.

1 Would the following examples pass as correct/incorrect english?

  • The act of lying down
  • The act of standing still
  • The act of thinking
  • The act of jousting

(Personally I believe all four are acceptable english, though one might argue that the first three might technically be erroneous.)

2 Would the following examples pass as correct/incorrect english?

  • killing a man is an evil deed
  • walking away from the murder scene, he knew he had committed an evil deed
  • Van Gogh cutting his ear off can be seen as a unusual deed.

(No clue if this is acceptable/erroneous English, i would guess acceptable)

3 as i understand it correctly the following sentences are not deemed correct English and the word deed should be replaced by act in the following sentences

  • Brutus committed the deed of killing Julius Caesar (historically somewhat inaccurate i know)
  • the deed of killing Julius Caesar
share|improve this answer
Sometimes, overthinking convolutes that which should be straight forward. In terms of common usage, Act = performance, Deed = what is done. – Katherine Oct 5 '15 at 23:14

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.