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I've always used "inherent" and "intrinsic" interchangeably. Dictionary.com doesn't offer much help in distinguishing them.

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5 Answers 5

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I do not know about English usage, but coming from Latin there are some differences:

  • inherent: to hang on something, adhere to s., stick to s., (lat. inhaerens)
  • intrinsic: to come from the inside, immanent (lat: intrinsecus, "within")
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I'm not a native English speaker. However, both words are derived from Latin roots and the German language has "intrinsisch" and "inhärent" as well, so I came across this same question. Like malach mentioned in their response, the Latin roots might point in the right direction, but to me, the plain definition or translation does not yet provide an answer to the question. I stick to objects for the moment and reiterate:

  1. intrinsic implies that an object carries a certain property in and of itself. The property comes from within the object.
  2. inherent implies that an object is associated with a certain property. The property is attached to the object; sticking to it.

From these definitions I infer the hypothesis that intrinsic refers to properties that objects posses physically, naturally, universally, just like wuputah states in his answer, whereas inherent properties are associated as per interpretation. Interpretations are most often formed by human individuals or societies but can of course be found in animals as well as in artificial intelligences.

wuputah's example of the intrinsic conductivity of gold is very good. This particular property of gold is not open to interpretation - it just is. On the other hand, the price and usability of gold are humanly associated properties, a product of society, and it is therefore reasonable to talk about the inherent value of gold.

Why then is the word value more often correlated with intrinsic, than with inherent (as per Corpus of Contemporary American English)? I think this is a failure to recognize the truth behind the concept of value. Don't get me wrong, please: I am not claiming that writers fail to use the words correctly - according to my hypothesis - although that might well play into it. I am merely claiming, that writers actually think that gold has a high intrinsic value.

And that, for me, seems to be the main problem with these two words: As clear and specific as the (Latin-derived) definitions for intrinsic and inherent may be, and as clear cut and discriminant as I may formulate my hypothesis: It is still up to the writer to distinguish between physically, naturally possessed properties and those that are merely associated by universal societal agreement. And other factors have to be considered as well:

  • level of quantitative detail: The human race may be intrinsically prone to religion but a single human, in general, is not.
  • level of qualitative abstraction: For a lawyer, freedom of speech may be an intrinsic good for humans, whereas a philosopher may regard it as merely inherent. This difference is purely based on their respective fields of expertise. The lawyer, through the use of the declaration of human rights, removes all the philosophical problems, thus abstracting the concept.
  • self-replicating memes: the COCA lists motivation as being largely associated with intrinsic. But nearly all the sources are in writings on education, for it seems that intrinsic motivation is a major buzz word in this field.
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The uses of these two words definitely overlap, but I do think that, at times, there is a subtle difference.

In my experience, intrinsic is more frequently used when the property is unique or unexpected, while inherent is more frequently a property that would be expected or common. Ergo, intrinsic implies a certain uniqueness that inherent does not.

I also believe intrinsic is also more frequently used to refer to properties of nature-related subjects or naturally-occurring properties, for instance, a precious metal, a mountain view, etc. In this sense, an intrinsic property would be considered a "universal truth" for that subject, and would be true for any instance of the subject. Still, for intrinsic, the property is somewhat special or unique, per my first statement.

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I don't think "intrinsic" has anything to do with uniqueness... can you give an example of what you're thinking? (An example of uniqueness implied where "intrinsic" is used, and of non-uniqueness where "intrinsic" would not be right to use.) –  ShreevatsaR Sep 20 '10 at 7:48
    
"In the electronics industry, gold is known for its intrinsic conductive and non-oxidizing qualities." "This legal document is inherently complex." Not great examples, and I'm not saying my answer is perfect - it's just what I have interpreted over the years. –  wuputah Sep 23 '10 at 16:44
    
PS. Definitely like Ralph's answer better, I felt there was something about the words that were different, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. This was my best attempt to describe it. –  wuputah Sep 23 '10 at 17:25

New Oxford American English:

A quality that is inherent is a permanent part of a person's nature or essence (: an inherent tendency to fight back).

Intrinsic and essential are broader terms that can apply to things as well as people. [...] an intrinsic quality is one that belongs naturally to a person or thing (: her intrinsic fairness; an intrinsic weakness in the design).

So theoretically inherent has to do with a person and intrinsic with either a person or thing but...that's REALLY nitpicky. In fact, the very definition of inherent, according to the same dictionary is

inherent |ɪnˈhɪrənt| |ɪnˈhɛrənt|

existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute : any form of mountaineering has its inherent dangers | the symbolism inherent in all folk tales.

Merriam-Webster considers them synonyms. So it's really up to whatever you choose to believe. I doubt most people would perceive any difference, though.

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When trying to distinguish between nearly synonymic words, dictionaries - because they try to encompass all usages of the term - yield poor discriminability.

It is better to look at how the terms appear in actual use to flush out the subtle differences in the minds of the users. As a rough first pass using the "compare" feature of the Corpus of Contemporary American English can give a picture of collocates to your two words of interest. If the words lived in the minds of speakers as wholly interchangeable you'd expect to see nearly identical collocates, in this case they don't.

Unfortunately, that site doesn't produce nice "click me" links, so go there, pick Display > Compare, and put your two words in the two "search string" boxes just below. The rest of the defaults are fine, and press search. And then click around on various bits.

The words are used in pretty disjoint contexts therefore they aren't precisely interchangeable, however defining the relevant contexts is a toughy. For everyday speech, most listeners will not balk at using them as if they were interchangeable.

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Everything here is spot on, but you still don't say anything about the two words specifically. –  Mitch Sep 25 '13 at 0:37
    
The question asked "is there a subtle difference". My answer, in summary is that they are not purely synonymous but "For everyday speech, most listeners will not balk at using them as if they were interchangeable." @Mitch, how would you suggest that this answer say anything about the two words specifically which is not covered in the other answers? –  msw Sep 25 '13 at 1:41
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Since you actually noticed a difference in actual examples from a corpus, I thought you'd have a special insight that others got from just looking at dictionaries. –  Mitch Sep 25 '13 at 13:21

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