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I am wondering what the precise differences between preternatural and supernatural are.

I know praeter is Latin for beyond so that preternatural literally means beyond natural. But how exactly does that compare to supernatural? Isn't supernatural just the same thing?

I also have the vague idea that on the "scale of unnatural-ness" we should have

unnatural < preternatural < supernatural = most unnatural.

Is that the only distinction?

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Also, this question is related but different: english.stackexchange.com/questions/6371/… –  user6751 Jul 17 '11 at 16:29

10 Answers 10

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Preternatural is a wonderful word, one that's been saved from being overused only by the fact that no one seems to know what it means.

It means "apparently inexplicable by natural means". You might say, "Yo Yo Ma is a praeternaturally skillful cellist" (bonus points for the olde-timey spelling), meaning only that he is really, really ridiculously good. You aren't claiming that he's actually, non-metaphorically magical or ghostly. Yo Yo Ma does exist. (I know for sure: I saw him once, at a CostCo of all places. I was going to talk to him, but all I could think of to say was "Hey, is it true you once left a Stradivarius on the plane? FAIL!")

Supernatural is pretty much of a dumb word. People use it for ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night -- i.e., things that, unlike Yo Yo Ma, do not exist. Why people feel the need to divide non-existent entities into subcategories I don't know.

To use one of James Randi's old examples: if in fact Uri Geller's claim ability to bend spoons with his mind actually existed, that would be supernatural; in reality, his ability to bullshit people is preternatural.

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+1 for James Randi, and that Uri Geller's "ability to bullshit people is preternatural." Excellent! –  user6751 Jul 19 '11 at 14:24
+1, but do note that Mr. Ma left his cello in a cab, not on a plane. –  Robert S. Jul 19 '11 at 16:12
OK, but which is worse, thinking that Yo Yo Ma left his Strad on a plane instead of in the trunk of a cab or actually doing it! Sure, he's the most famous and probably the most talented cellist in history and I'm ... not, but hey, I've never mislaid anything worth $2.5 million, or even half that. Incidentally, I thought the cello had been actually lost; no, it turns out it was almost instantly retrieved. –  Malvolio Jul 19 '11 at 17:51
Preternatural is a wonderful word, one that's been saved from being overused only by the fact that no one seems to know what it means. +1 just for this sentence. –  Leo King May 13 at 11:42

Preternatural means uncanny, unexplained in nature, but of this world (for example might have preternatural hearing without anything unnatural or supernatural happening).

Supernatural means something uncanny in nature, and not of this world (for example supernatural hearing would be hearing enhanced by magic or ghosts or somesuch supernatural thing).

Edit: The above is consistent with (but not a quotation of) the definitions in the OED.

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With all due respect, I do not think this is correct. –  user6751 Jul 17 '11 at 18:11
Also with all due respect, I note this answer pretty accurately reflects the (possibly unauthoritative)Wikipedia on the distinction. Here's a debate around the concepts, that seems to imply it's mainly a recent distinction intended to make semantic space for preternatural acts of God (as opposed to supernatural phenomena ruled out by the laws of physics). I don't buy the real-world distinction, but if others do, I guess the words themselves can be different. –  FumbleFingers Jul 17 '11 at 20:56
My Websters (1959) has preternatural as 'beyond or surpassing nature', and lists Preternatural as a synonym of Supernatural, with almost the exact distinction @Marcin sets out. –  Bobbi Bennett Jul 18 '11 at 4:40
And, the only place I have encountered the word Preternatural is in vampire novels (Lestat, I think), where they are described as having preternatural strength or senses. In context, I always took this to mean 'super-human'. As for the use in Master and Margarita, a quite ordinary person (to whom extra-ordinary things are about to happen) is described as having glasses of preternatural size. I do not see that as pompous, but a humorous exaggeration with tinges of fore-shadowing, as preternatural events are soon to unfold. But THANK you, for the M&M reference! –  Bobbi Bennett Jul 18 '11 at 15:14
@Eric Nasland: Perhaps the posters have paraphrased a bit. My Webster's has, under supernatural, the synonym preternatural: exceeds in some way what is natural, ...without being felt as supernatural. And supernatural:proceeding from an order of existence beyond nature...;..spiritual as opposed to material. –  Bobbi Bennett Jul 18 '11 at 15:34

I have seen preternatural used in religious contexts - for example, to describe miracles. The words supernatural or paranormal can sound more spooky than holy, making the reader think of vampires and ESP.

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OP's "scale of unnatural-ness" is somewhat problematic, in that many attempts to distinguish preternatural from supernatural are largely focussed on which side to place "divine intervention". This is obviously contentious since it gets confused by the issue of whether God exists and/or can be considered as part of the natural order of things.

Having said that, for most purposes, preternatural is an archaic synonym for supernatural. Where the two are distinguishable, preternatural has more the sense of extremely unnatural/abnormal, whereas supernatural leans towards contrary to (or beyond) the laws of nature (or physics).

It should also be noted that preternatural is primarily a quaint archaic term that was probably never more widely used than supernatural anyway.

One reason for using preternatural is that it has overtones of being lofty/refined/academic (though of course this may mark the speaker out as a pseudointellectual).

In OP's context (Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, translated 1967) the choice of preternatural is a somewhat 'literary' usage where the 'strangeness' of the word echoes its literal meaning...

his neatly shaven face was embellished by black hornrimmed spectacles of preternatural dimensions

...where clearly a literal interpretation (however you define the word) isn't really intended.

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The terms preternatural and supernatural found their original distinctions within Gnosticism and religion, yet have been bastardized in the last few centuries. Now we most often see the use of the word preternatural in works by genre authors striving to find a synonym for supernatural. Because of this, most people today consider these two words to be fairly interchangeable.

Pre-12th century Gnostics made the distinction as follows: There is the the Natural, the Preternatural, and the Supernatural. Natural describes all that which belongs to the material world and adheres to its strict physical and scientific laws.

Preternatual is the action which goes beyond the structure of the nature of the material universe. The fruit of the action of an angelical or demoniacal nature is said to be preternatural. The word comes from "praeter naturam", beyond nature. Supernatural is the action which goes beyond any created nature. This form of activity belongs only to God.

Material nature can bring about surprising things, but it will always be according the the laws of the material cosmos. The devils can levitate an object in the air, transform something instantaneously, etc. They can do things which go beyond the possibilities of the material world, but they cannot go beyond the laws of their angelical natures, because they cannot do everything. They cannot do everything even in the material world. God, however, can create an organ from nothing; a devil cannot. (excerpts from Theological works on Gnosticism).

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Perhaps this is helpful, perhaps it is not. I always thought that a good way to distinguish the two was that while both preternatural and supernatural events are uncommon and seemingly baffling, a preternatural event is explainable in terms of the natural world-no matter how difficult that explanation may be. However, a supernatural event is explainable only in terms of the supernatural itself. To understand the preternatural, reference may be made to the natural. The supernatural is understood exclusively by reference to what is supernatural. Preternatural is distinguished from the natural by the esoteric or highly uncommon nature of the preternatural itself. It can also be distinguished by the difficulty or obscurity inherent within any explanation of the preternatural phenomenon. However difficult the explanation may be, though, it is still in reference to the natural.

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Preternatural is exceeding the natural or regular but not exceeding the laws of physics; a possibility however rare in nature.

Supernatural is exceeding whats possible or explainable in physics and exceeding the material world; the hand of God, a miracle.

The belief in God and Angels is ubiquitous in the world and so accepted into the dictionaries of Webster's Definitions. This is an immutable axiom of humanity. Define Angel: Attendant upon God. See? Nothing mythical here at all. Just solid good definitions. Other folks who don't agree can create their "special" dictionary.

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Disclaimer: This response is a blend of past research and personal experience as a writer of both fiction and academic works (only published in non-university journals).

Perhaps this is too simplistic, but I generally use the terms in this way in my writings:

Supernatural is above all laws of and within the natural order. God, The Devil, their posse, pagan gods/goddesses, ghosts (in some instances), most immortal types, and the like. They do not follow the rules of nature as Newton or anyone else explains it as they were created, live, and have powers that are outside, above, and beyond these rules.

Preternatural is within the laws of nature in that they must obey at least some of these laws while seeming to be beyond others. Werewolves, witches, vampires, zombies, ghosts (to some extent), yeti, Peter Pan and his entourage, demigods/goddesses (Hercules, Achilles, et al.), and some species of aliens, etc. This is because they must obey the laws of nature in some form (like falling down, bleeding when shot/stabbed/punched in the face, feeling pain, having weaknesses that natural beings can use to bring them down if necessary, and stuff).

"But, vampires are immortal!" You say. No, they aren't. Immortals, by their very nature, such as it is, cannot be killed, in the same way energy cannot be created or destroyed. At the most, they can be disembodied or banished. You know, like Lucifer and his crew when they got booted from Suburbia Clean Happy Pretty Serene Forevers on the north side and sent to live in the south side urban ghetto of Hot Mess Grody-To-The-Max Ouchy Darkness Eternal? Yeah, like that.

"Magic is beyond nature," you irritatingly profess. Nay and forsooth, it ain't. Think of Magic and Alien/Super Science as twin teens and Natural Law is the Mom. You may see Magic and Sci out for a ride in the car on a Saturday night pretending they can do whatever they want, but they still have to be in by 11 o'clock or else and the supernatural gods helps them if there's a dent in the car. Or, it's like Chris Rock's definition of the difference between being Rich and being Wealthy. Preternaturals are rich. Supernaturals are wealthy.

So let's review: Preternatural - can be killed, must obey at least some laws of nature, and most have biological roots. Example, vampires. You may not know the deeper mysteries of the whys & wherefores of their existence and abilities, but you can shove a garlic clove in their grill, bury them alive, toss them into sunlight, stake 'em, or just let the Slayer or the Winchesters handle them. They live long lives, but they fear mortals and immortals because they can and do die.

But, God and that bunch? You can ignore and blame him/her/it/them, and maybe even banish and disembody him/her/it/them. But kill him/her/it/them? Not even a little bit. Why? Because he/she/it/they're supernatural, foolish mortal, that's why.

I hope that helps :-)

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I found a part of my research! When I was working on this one story, I put all of what I'd researched into a "register" so I could keep things straight in my head about what fitted in where. This is how it shook out...

Categorical Ability Register

Natural: To have abilities within the boundaries of Nature as they exist on Earth. Normal human beings and animals fit into this category.

Preternatural: To have abilities that extend the boundaries of Nature as they exist on Earth. Beings that were once human or have a human “side” or essence fit into this category, i.e. vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, certain types of ghosts, slayers, reapers (as helpers of Death), humanoid aliens (Superman, Saiyans), mutants, witches and wizards, fairies/brownies, dwarves, elves, humans or huminoids with extrasensory abilities (psychics, empaths, telekinetics; i.e. Carrie, Jedi Knights and Sith Lords), and the like. This description also includes the offspring of supernatural beings and humans since demigods, half demons, etc., are not true immortals despite possibly having more ability than either parent.

Supernatural: To have abilities that operate outside the boundaries of Nature as they exist on Earth. This includes beings that were never human, but were divinely created directly by God or the Devil, i.e. angels (heavenly, former, and fallen), demons, and certain types of spirits and ghosts (i.e. Angel of Death, elementals). Supernatural beings have the trait of being truly immortal – they cannot be killed. Those that can be killed cannot be killed by a mortal being of any kind (Pre-, Supra- or Natural), though it is possible that another supernatural being may be able to do so, typically the one who created it. Certain gods and goddesses, devis, and the like, fall into this category. This also includes human beings who have died can become immortal, making them supernatural beings, i.e. Hercules, guardian angels or vengeful demons (Spawn), etc.

Supranatural: To have abilities that extend beyond the boundaries of Nature as they exist on Earth. Similar to Preternatural beings except the entity does not have a connection to humanity and/or have a human-like appearance, i.e. space aliens (Predators, Aliens, ET, etc.), beings from other dimensions, etc.

The Cliff Fall Example:

If a Natural being falls of a high cliff, they will die or at least be seriously injured. If a Preternatural being falls off the same cliff, he/she will survive or at least be far less injured than the Natural being. A Supernatural being would not fall off the cliff since they have the ability to fly, float, disappear, or land without incident or injury. A Supranatural being would sustain injury or death according to the structure of its body as created on its own world. For example, ET would likely be able to float or fly to avoid injury. A Predator would likely sustain some injury but avoid death because of his or her toughness and/or technological advancements.

The Possession Example:

If an alien (Supranatural) possesses a human being (Natural), the result is a Preternatural being since there is/was a human body and essence as the foundation of possession; however, a Supranatural is infusing the human being with a portion or all of its innate qualities during the inhabitation, which gives that human body additional abilities it did not have prior to the possession. Thus, it is now Preternatural.

  • Please Note: Possession may also occur without any additional abilities transferred to the human being, which may lend itself to the low innate abilities of the alien or show an unwillingness of the alien to commit its powers to the human body. This occurs for a variety of reasons, with one being that the alien is planning to leave its human host after a short period of possession (i.e., Starman). Examples: Men in Black. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. K-PAX. The Astronaut’s Wife. The Hidden. Species III.

If a demon (Supernatural) possesses a human being (Natural), the result is a Preternatural being since there is/was a human body and essence as the foundation of possession; however, a Supernatural entity is infusing the human being with a portion or all of its innate qualities during the inhabitation, which gives the human body additional abilities it did not have prior to the possession. Thus, it is now Preternatural.

  • Please Note: Possession may also occur without any additional abilities transferred to the human being, which may lend itself to the low innate abilities of the demon or show an unwillingness of the demon to commit its powers to the human body. This occurs for a variety of reasons, with one being that the demon knows its full powers will overwhelm the human host after a short period of possession, forcing it to abandon the body; whereas less power will cause less damage and thus, extend its stay. Examples: The Exorcist. Ghost Rider. The Shining. Evil Dead. Paranormal Activity.

Typically, a Preternatural cannot possess a Natural since they generally do not have the power or innate ability to do so. There may be instances when the Preternatural may possess a Natural through the use of outside means that enable possession, usually through the use of Supernatural processes. Atypically, a Preternatural such as psychics, mutants and witches, may have the innate ability to temporarily possess a Natural.

A Supernatural may be able to possess other Supernaturals according to innate ability or outside means. The same may be said for Supranaturals.

A Natural cannot possess other Naturals or other Beings within the Register without Super- or Supranatural means. (No, co-dependent relationships don't count)

Hope that helps clarify things for you.

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I think preternatural means beyond nature:I mean far from nature or above nature. While supernatural means excellently natural:I mean perfectly natural

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No, that's not the usual usage of supernatural at all. –  Marcin Apr 4 at 18:36

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