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As someone who is at (near-)native level of English, I know all of these words, but as I'm not immersed in an area where use of English is prevalent, (as of now I am living in the Netherlands,) I don't encounter these words often enough to start seeing obvious patterns between the differences, and the dictionaries I have used didn't help. I have some general ideas, although I have general ideas on the meaning of some of the words.

Propensity seems to be a 'natural' inclination, i.e. "Man has the propensity to be selfish", and disposition seems to be related to opinions as in "He has a disposition to agree with those that are close to him." I don't have the faintest idea about the differences between the other three words that are left though.

Could anyone care to explain this all to me?

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3 Answers 3

Tendency is about a direction or path. You could think of it as 'a habitual path' that a person takes to get to their goals. ~ "He has a tendency to use the computer a lot" = his path to information is through the computer.

Propensity is about a physical characteristic that determines behaviour. You could think of this as being 'hardwired' into a person, so it is stronger that a habit, and more of a need ~ "He has a propensity to drink beer" = he has a need to drink beer, possibly on the way to alcoholism

Disposition is a little more complicated: from the sense of 'arranging', through the arrangement of the planets, to a persons characteristics according to astrology. Think of 'saturnine', 'jovial' or 'mercurial' that all come from astrology. ~ "He has a happy disposition" ~ the planets were in a happy-making arrangement when he was born; he was born that way.

Inclination is about bias. Think of an inclined plane, and the way things roll to the lower edge. It is easier to get this person to go one way (down hill) than the other (up hill). ~ "He is inclined to talk a lot" = no matter how often you ask him to talk less, he always goes back to talking a lot.

Proclivity is almost the same. The etymology is 'downward slope'. It does carry a suggestion of being towards something morally wrong. ~ "He has a proclivity for teenage girls" = he is inclined to chase teenage girls.

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I like your answer except for the part about "disposition." Can you cite some references or give some links to support what you say there? –  JLG Jun 1 '12 at 15:07
    
Sure! OED > oed.com/view/Entry/55123?redirectedFrom=disposition#eid meaning 6. If you don't have OED access, try here > etymonline.com/… –  Roaring Fish Jun 1 '12 at 15:12

According to "Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms," the named words have different nuances of meaning. It comes down to the difference between being influenced to do something versus a natural urge do something.

  • Incline implies that one's mind or feelings have been influenced to the point where they are leaning leaning toward one of two or more possible conclusions, projects or decisions.
  • Tendency straddles the influence/innate difference in that it means an inherent or acquired inclination in a person or thing to move in a definite direction that will continue so long as nothing interferes.
  • Disposition means the innately prevailing or predominant qualities of mind or spirit of a person or group.
  • Propensity and proclivity both mean a strong natural instinct for liking for something or someone. Propensity implies an inherent and often uncontrollable longing or natural appetite. Proclivity often implies something stronger or less controllable, and may imply something evil.
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Good summary. One distinction you didn't flag up is that tendency can be freely used with a non-volitional, inanimate subject - {some} material has a tendency {to react in a certain way}, for example. Propensity can just about be used thus (and proclivity to an even lesser extent), but incline and disposition are normally only used with "conscious agent" subjects. –  FumbleFingers Jun 1 '12 at 21:44

To me they're all equally useful synonyms to a large degree. I would say that in a formality ranking from informal (i.e. speech with a friend) to formal (e.g. political obfuscation) they would go in this order:

tendency > inclination > disposition > propensity > proclivity

So, these would all be mostly equivalent phrases:

  • J has a tendency to waffle (or J tends to waffle)
  • J is inclined to waffle
  • J is (frequently) disposed to waffling
  • J has a propensity to waffle
  • J has a proclivity to waffle

Some further notes:

  1. I wouldn't use proclivity in speech, and rarely in writing, unless trying to be 'clever' for some particular reason, but that's just me. See George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' for more on this.
  2. Disposition is one of those words that has a lot of uses and meanings: and as such its use can obscure meaning. If you ever see it in business contracts or legal documents double-check exactly what is meant!
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