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The meanings for ameliorate and alleviate are quite similar, but I don’t think they are exact synonyms: what are the nuances behind choosing which one to use in a particular context?

I’d like some example sentences to show where one of them can’t be substituted by the other.

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There are no -exact- synonyms. Except maybe in math. A pail is a bucket, but they have different connotations and collocations. – Mitch Nov 22 '13 at 16:43
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, defines ameliorate as: to make better; improve. Under their entry for improve, there is this note about synonyms:

improve, better, help, ameliorate: These verbs mean to advance to a more desirable, valuable, or excellent state. Improve and better, the most general terms, are often interchangeable: You can improve (or better) your mind through study; I got a haircut to improve (or better) my appearance. Help usually implies limited relief or change: Gargling helps a sore throat. To ameliorate is to improve circumstances that demand change: Volunteers were able to ameliorate conditions in the refugee camp.

Alleviate is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as: to make (pain, for example) more bearable. Under their entry for relieve, there is this note about synonyms:

relieve, allay, alleviate, assuage, lighten, mitigate, palliate: These verbs mean to make something less severe or more bearable. To relieve is to make more endurable something causing discomfort or distress: "that misery which he strives in vain to relieve" ... Alleviate connotes temporary lessening of distress without removal of its cause: "No arguments shall be wanting on my part that can alleviate so severe a misfortune. (Jane Austen)...

In medical writing, ameliorate is used when describing a patient's condition. Alleviate is used when lessening pain. So you could say, for example, "The patient's condition was ameliorated when we administered pain medicine to alleviate her headache." That is, you improved the situation by relieving the pain.

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They aren't really that similar at all.

Alleviate is a word to use to say that something will fix or nearly fix (or at least somewhat help fix) a problem.

Ameliorate is a word to use to say that something won't really fix the problem, but will make the impact of it less bad. Sort of cushioning the blow.

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You’re right that these are quite similar. Per the OED, alleviate is

To lighten, or render more tolerable, or endurable; to relieve, mitigate

While in (non-)contrast, ameliorate is

To make better; to better, improve.

There is also an intransitive sense for ameliorate, where it means “to grow better” rather than “to make better”.

I may be wrong, but my instinct of contemporary usage is that one is more apt to employ alleviate when the problem is completely resolved, and ameliorate when it is improved but not necessarily removed altogether.

Since the two words can in fact, or at least in theory, be used interchangeable, it is probably best not to assume anything, and to spell out just what you mean if there is any question.

Here are some OED citations for ameliorate:

  • 1813 Sir H. Davy Agric. Chem. 203 ― A sterile soil··may be ameliorated by the application of quick lime.
  • 1849 Macaulay Hist. Eng. I. 279 ― In every human being there is a wish to ameliorate his own condition.
  • 1882 Geikie in Macm. Mag. Mar. 365/2 ― [Man]··would find his way back as the climate ameliorated.

And here are some for alleviate:

  • 1712 Steele Spect. No. 450 ⁋3, ― I··found means to alleviate, and at last conquer my Affliction.
  • 1871 Napheys Prevent. Dis. ɪɪɪ. ii. 619 ― To alleviate the sufferings of the invalid.
  • 1876 Mozley Univ. Serm. ᴠ. 120 ― Hope alleviates the sorrow of that home.

If you are looking for a fine distinction, there is something “uplifting” about alleviate that does not quite occur in ameliorate, which is simply to improve.

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The American Heritage Dictionary's note about synonyms says almost the opposite: "alleviate connotes temporary lessening of distress without removal of its cause." – JLG Sep 13 '12 at 12:52

Alleviate is most commonly used to describe pain reduction, whereas ameliorate seems to be used for more abstract 'pain', for example 'ameliorate the effects of recession.'

As @T.E.D. says - the first does something, whereas the second reduces the effects of something.

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Is your “Alleviate is ... whereas alleviate seems” contrast intended? Also “used do describe” is a typo. – jwpat7 Sep 12 '12 at 21:21
Need to avoid answering questions from my smartphone - thanks. – Rory Alsop Sep 12 '12 at 22:28

The term ameliorate derives from Latin, melior "better".

Alleviate also derives from Latin, ad- "to" (see ad-) + levis "light" in weight (see lever).

The root, lever means to raise.

There is a great deal of overlap in these closely related words. However, they are not identical in meaining. Ameliorate, in making better often focuses on the good aspects. Alleviate tends to focus on the bad things that have to be made lighter or lifted.

A search of Google for ameliorate examples provides

A consistent routine of exercise has shown to ameliorate health.

I wish there was a way to ameliorate this whole bathing process; anything would be better than this!

Another approach would be to use short-term fixes to ameliorate the current situation while unwinding the euro.

They get opportunities to recognize and ameliorate bad choices.

Access to clean water would ameliorate living conditions within the village.

In none of these sentences would alleviate be appropriate. Needless to say, there are many other examples from that search where the terms wholly overlap and aleviate could be substituted.

It is my impression that, in the vast majority of cases, the obverse would not be true. Ameliorate can nearly always be substituted for alleviate.

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It's really very simple. As all the wonderful examples posted clearly show:

Ameliorate: To improve or make better.
Thus: This game could be improved by adding some more colour." becomes "This game could be ameliorated by adding some colour".

Alleviate is temporary, i.e. it removes the symptom but not the cause.

The game is not a symptom ergo alleviate would not fit.
Perhaps, "My boredom with this game could be alleviated with some beer and friends." Boredom being a symptom of the game's lack of colour.

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