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I wonder if there is any difference between usage of these three:

  • deliberately
  • intentionally
  • on purpose

Are they completely interchangeable? Are they at the same level of formality?

I found some explanation (forums) Googling the three words, but I don’t find them reliable since people simply stated their own opinion.

In the dictionary, they are mentioned as synonymous: deliberately means intentionally, and on purpose means deliberately.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The levels of formality are, in descending order: intentionally, deliberately, and on purpose. If you look at published books and journals that have blank pages, you'll find some with printed statements "This page intentionally left blank". That's because it's the most formal and the most neutral. Yes, deliberately is a synonym that means intentionally, but it more often has a negative connotation than intentionally does (especially among high school students, at least that was true when I was in high school), although both words are used both positively and negatively, e.g., That was {a deliberate / an intentional snub} (negative use, and Google Ngrams shows more frequent use of the former than the latter). Maybe that's merely because deliberately is more frequently used than intentionally is.

Wikipedia has an article on deliberate practice, however, which shows that word's very positive connotation. There are also Web pages for intentional practice that show its equally positive connotation. Google Ngrams shows that deliberate practice is more often used than intentional practice. On purpose is what children say for intentionally and deliberately, which is why it's the at the lowest level of formality of those three terms. They are not always interchangeable: register and context must be taken into account.

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They are synonyms, which as with all synonyms means there is a slight difference in nuance (no two words are exactly identical).

Intentionally and on purpose differ mainly in register. Deliberately also carries another meaning of doing something with great care (compare deliberated), which while not necessarily implied in the sense you are talking about, does colour the word.

So, you can use any of them to convey the same meaning, but you might consider those subtle differences when aiming for the perfect choice in more considered writing.

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This is a better answer, in that it explains the connotations a bit better. I'd go a step further, though, and differentiate "intentionally" and "on purpose." "On purpose" is generally antonymic to accidental: "You did that on purpose!" Intentional, on the other hand, implies forethought. –  TechWriter James Dec 11 '12 at 16:19
    
@TechWriter James: Both answers differentiate "intentionally" and "on purpose": Jon Hanna specifies that they differ in register and I imply precisely the same thing when I say that children use "on purpose" rather than "intentionally" and "deliberately". –  user21497 Dec 11 '12 at 16:26
    
@Bill Franke: I must have missed your reference to children when I read your answer - apologies. On the register issue: I thought register referred to formality or audience, and my contention is that the difference goes beyond "children use this; adults don't" into the realm of nuances of meaning regardless of audience. Thus the two-part question: Are they completely interchangeable? Are they at the same level of formality? You answered the formality aspect; I thought the connotations addressed the interchangeability portion. –  TechWriter James Dec 11 '12 at 17:05
    
@TechWriter James: As with most linguistics terms, there are different definitions of the term register. The original (1956) seems to be the one I use: it categorizes by age. None of the three is completely interchangeable with the other two. Just as "I have to do number 2 would be inappropriate for talking with adults" because it's strictly children's lingo, "I did it intentionally" isn't appropriate for children because it's a 5-syllable word". –  user21497 Dec 11 '12 at 21:15
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Even my 16-year-old Taiwanese son told me last night that he doesn't know the two words intentionally & deliberately, but he does know on purpose. Yes, he's a native speaker of English, but that doesn't mean he speaks like a typical 16-year-old American high school junior: I have to use easy language with him, & I have to define formal terms if I use them. Just last night, e.g, he told me that he'd scored poorly on an English test because it required him to translate English words with too many letters into Chinese. He doesn't know the term big words. –  user21497 Dec 11 '12 at 21:49

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