Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The dictionary defines relevant as being

Closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand

whilst pertinent is defined as

Relevant or applicable to a particular matter.

Both of these definitions seem to me to be the same, and the dictionary also defines pertinence and relevance as synonyms. However I feel that in my normal usage I apply a further meaning (something I can't quite articulate) to pertinence.

For example, I see a difference between a relevant question and a pertinent one. Perhaps it's that I see a pertinent question as one which maybe alights on some previously unexplored aspect of the matter at hand, whereas a relevant question explores more familiar ground. Almost as if pertinence requires more insight than relevance.

Does anyone else feel that there is a difference between the two?


Update

So, we're agreed that there is a difference, but I'm still not definitely clear on what that difference is. I think there's maybe more to it than Guffa's suggestion that frequency of use causes pertinence to feel more important. I feel that Robusto might be on to something with impertinence being definitely not the same as irrelevance. I will look into this more when I get the time, but in the mean time I appreciate your help.


Update 2

I've accepted Ghoppe's answer, because I think that one sums up what I'm feeling the best. However (as pointed out by Noldorin in the question comments) I appreciate there's not any real difference at all in their meaning.

share|improve this question
    
No, there's really no difference at all. They mean precisely the same things in modern English. –  Noldorin Jan 12 '11 at 0:13
    
@Noldorin: I respectfully disagree. The words are synonyms, granted, but I think (and it would appear others agree) that there is a subtle distinction in their meanings which is reflected in their usage. –  Andy F Jan 12 '11 at 11:09
    
Fair enough. I do however think that difference would go amiss in almost every case in conversation or writing... –  Noldorin Jan 12 '11 at 13:18
    
@Noldorin: I absolutely agree; and I expect no one would be pedantic enough to correct such a minuscule difference. The question was asked out of interest only, I (thankfully) don't have a situation which requires I choose between the two :) –  Andy F Jan 12 '11 at 13:28
    
F: Ok, I'll give you that. ;) The words have different origins and the verb "to pertain" is not quite identical to the verb "to relate", though I for one (and I think most people) would find it hard to explain the difference to someone who did "feel" it. –  Noldorin Jan 12 '11 at 13:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think the difference is in degree. It's similar to the difference between large/huge/gigantic or small/tiny/miniscule. In some contexts, you may be able to substitute any of those words, but due to common usage or word origin or whatever other factors, there is an understood subtle scale.

So, if you have relevant facts to discuss, they may or not be important, but they are related to the matter at hand. But if you have pertinent facts to discuss, they have precise or logical relevance to the discussion. They absolutely should not be overlooked. Pertinent facts are always relevant, but relevant facts are not necessarily pertinent.

One reason why this may be the case is that pertinent could also be used as a synonym for apt (ie. strikingly appropriate) but relevant doesn't really have that meaning. If I said you wrote an "apt answer" to this question how would you feel? What if I said it was a "pertinent answer?" Or "relevant answer?"

I think most people would feel that calling it a relevant answer is nearly a mild insult. Oh yeah, it's related, but not close to perfect.

share|improve this answer
1  
+1 Totally mirror my thoughts. For me, something pertinent would be immediately something of interest, compared to something relevant. –  Eldroß Jan 12 '11 at 10:29
1  
+1 This also rings true with me, that pertinence implies precision. Good point about aptness as well. –  Andy F Jan 12 '11 at 11:11
1  
I don't know if I would say that "relevant answer" carries any trace of insult, but I agree with the apt > pertinent > relevant progression. –  Marthaª Jan 14 '11 at 15:02
    
There is a "minus" in minuscule. :) –  Tony Jun 6 at 17:01

I feel that pertinent may be slightly stronger, but the two are definitely synonyms. The major difference I see is that the negative forms can be quite different. When something is irrelevant it has no bearing on the topic at hand. Impertinent can mean the same thing, but is usually used to describe a person's rudeness or lack of proper respect: "You asked a very impertinent question" can either mean the question was entirely irrelevant or the person asking it was being discourteous by doing so.

share|improve this answer
    
However, impertinent in the meaning of rudeness is not the negative form of pertinent. –  Guffa Jan 8 '11 at 17:05
    
@Guffa: What would be the negative form of pertinent? –  Andy F Jan 8 '11 at 18:42
    
@Guffa: I gave it in my answer. My dictionary's 2nd definition of impertinent is listed as: "not pertinent to a particular matter." –  Robusto Jan 8 '11 at 18:46
    
@Andy F: The negative form of pertinent is impertinent, but that doesn't mean that all meanings of impertinent has a corresponding meaning in pertinent. You can't use pertinent in the meaning of "un-rude". –  Guffa Jan 8 '11 at 18:49
    
@Guffa: Of course, you're right. Thanks for clarifying. –  Andy F Jan 8 '11 at 19:01

Perhaps examine the question by inverting it: impertinent vs. irrelevant.

This leads me to this differentiation:

pertinent questions SHOULD be asked; we suffer a loss if they are not. relevant questions CAN be asked; we do not waste time answering them.

share|improve this answer

I see that relevant has come to be used (at least in technical discussions) just to divide things into what's relevant and what's irrelevant. As such, saying that something is relevant doesn't really stress it's importance, just that it's not irrelevant.

While pertinent should have the same meaning, it's not as frequently used, so it can function as an alternative to relevant when you want to point out the importance of something.

share|improve this answer
2  
It's a tautology to say that "relevant" is used to "divide things into what's relevant and irrelevant." This could be said about any adjective X such that X draws a distinction between things that are X and things that are not X. –  Robusto Jan 8 '11 at 15:10
    
@Robusto: Yes, of course you can say that you can divide things like that using any adjective, but in reality you don't. It's for example not very common to divide things into lavender and non-lavender. I am talking about how it's actually used, not how it could be used. –  Guffa Jan 8 '11 at 17:02
    
@Guffa: I'm just saying your answer makes no real distinction. It just says "relevant" means "relevant". –  Robusto Jan 8 '11 at 18:25
1  
@Guffa: Not meaning to get you in a lather here. I'm just saying you're not making a meaningful distinction. In fact, relevance is a kind of importance. You say it's not, that it only means something that's not irrelevant. That is a tautology. If you have a further distinction to draw, please do. –  Robusto Jan 9 '11 at 0:39
1  
@Guffa, do you mean to say that "relevant" is used more often in a context where its opposite "irrelevant" is mentioned, as opposed to "pertinent", which is usually not mentioned in connection with its opposite? Is this to be an analogy with "good" and "not bad", where "good" stands for "pertinent" and "relevant" stand for "not bad"? I am not sure I feel that distinction - just trying to make sure I understood you correctly. –  Cerberus Jan 9 '11 at 3:20

My feeling is that 'relevant' is about raw facts and 'pertinent' is more about appropriateness or "soft values". Robusto's answer says that impertinent can be meant as rude (more or less), but an impertinent statetent or question could certainly be relevant.

But I'm not a native english speaker though.. I've just read a lot of books. :)

share|improve this answer

I am confused on how to discriminate relevant, pertinent, and germane, too. Are they interchangeable? But I have done some research and hope it could help you.

I assume,and please correct me if I am wrong, that "relevant" is "close to the topic, or in the field of one topic", which means so you can put two relevant objects without making meaningless mistake, for example, in discussion about "How to evaluate the rise of mobile phone", you can talk any factors such as technology, economy, which are relevant, but if you say" Apples are not bananas", or you talk about the decline of the mobile phone, it's irrelevant to the topic.

Whereas pertinent refer to the connotation meaning of two objects, like causality, like A is the cause of B, or B can derive from A, A and B have reasonable connection. For example, "The job title is not pertinent to your salary level".

Germane is something has substantial connection, close relation, and central to the issue. For example," this paper material is very germane to the case, it could define whether she was suicide or murdered".

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Aug 9 at 0:48

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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