Advocate and Partisan are two of the most ambiguous words I have ever come across. I have been researching these two words for almost three hours trying to figure out if they're the same or different. Driving me nuts!

  • Both are used interchangeably as having the same meaning
  • Both are used separately as having different meaning
  • Partisan is often used as an adjective for Advocate
  • Both are defined in the dictionary as being a supporter of a group

    Question: What is the difference between Partisan and Advocate?

  • If they are the same, then why do people say "partisan advocate"?
  • If they are different, then why are they not listed as synonym/antonym in a thesaurus?
  • If one supports the other, then why are both defined as an advocate for a group?
  • How is it that a partisan supporting a group is biased while advocating for a group is not?

  • 5
    • Note: If there were something in the dictionary mentioning Advocate as "not taking sides" or "supports all views" than the difference would be cut and dry, biased versus non-biased. That is not the case though. Feb 9, 2013 at 23:15
    • Which dictionaries have you looked them up in and what about what they had to say left you in confusion?
      – Jim
      Feb 9, 2013 at 23:15
    • I looked them up in every dictionary, thesaurus, word vs. word site that I could find on the web. Easily 14 variations or so. I just type in "Partisan Definition" in Google. Same with Advocate. === What kicked this all off was my speech class. In the book it says, "When your general purpose is to persuade, you act as an advocate or a partisan." === How can someone be 'this or that' if they're both the same thing? The in my search I see things like "Partisan Advocate," which means biased supporter... that's exactly what Partisan is supposed to be. (Mind begins melting) Feb 9, 2013 at 23:22
    • They are not the same thing.
      – Jim
      Feb 9, 2013 at 23:25
    • 1
      But you could indeed say "this or that" or "this and that" if they're both the same thing, and it's common to do so either because it's a common idiom, to cover any minor ambiguities by giving both options, or (less justifiable but it happens), because you were unsure which word to use, and used both. But as Jim says, in this case they're not the same.
      – Jon Hanna
      Feb 9, 2013 at 23:44

    3 Answers 3


    There’s no such thing as perfect synonymy. Like most of what we call ‘synonyms’, these two words have a broad area of meaning in common, but vary at their edges, like two circles which overlap but do not coincide.

    • partisan means a zealous supporter of a faction or party. From the beginning, partisan had negative connotations: it implied blind and unthinking adherence to one’s faction’s positions. Moreover, when the word first came into English, factions were not the kinder, gentler political parties they are today; they were often violent and occasionally insurrectionary gangs; and partisan today still carries a suggestion of at least rhetorical violence.

    • advocate means a zealous supporter of a cause … Note that there’s nothing in that that’s really different from ‘zealous supporter of a faction’; but it sounds different. When advocate first came into English it meant a ‘lawyer’, somebody who argued your cause before a court of justice; and a lawyer as we all know is a gentleman of great learning and professional probity, quite different from a street thug. To this day, advocate is used primarily for one who is an eloquent spokesman for a cause rather than a fighter for a cause.

    What it boils down to (ignoring the areas where these words have developed quite different meanings) is that My cause is represented by a rational, principled, passionately engaged advocate, while Your faction relies on vicious and ignorant partisans.

    • I'm on your side then...
      – Jim
      Feb 10, 2013 at 0:13
    • 2
      @Jim Well, of course you are, like all rational people. Feb 10, 2013 at 0:25
    • 1
      Eloquently put StoneyB. This is along the same conclusion I reached about an hour ago, which is why I decided to bring it in here as a last measure of reassurance. Who better to put the nail in this coffin than you folks. You all have my thanks. Feb 10, 2013 at 0:35
    • @Josh, and if you have some more basic questions, don't hesitate to ask on ELL.
      – user19148
      Feb 10, 2013 at 0:55
    • There is a difference between supporting a cause and a faction: the former means loyalty to to the cause, the latter to the organization, which doesn't necessarily solely serve the cause. I like "advocate ~ spokesman". Feb 10, 2013 at 5:25

    partisan : n
    1. An adherent to a party or faction.
    2. A fervent, sometimes militant, supporter or proponent of a party, cause, faction, person, or idea.
    3. A guerilla fighter; a member of detached light troops acting behind enemy lines.
    4. (now rare) The commander of a body of detached light troops engaged in making forays and harassing an enemy.

    advocate : n
    1. Someone whose job is to speak for someone's case in a court of law; a counsel. [from 14th c.]
    2. Anyone who argues the case of another; an intercessor. [from 14th c.]
    3. A person who speaks in support of something. [from 18th c.]
    4. A person who supports others to make their voices heard, or ideally for them to speak up for themselves.

    adherent : n A person who has membership in some group, association or religion.

    From the above an advocate is someone who speaks or argues for a cause that may not be their own while a partisan belongs to the group, faction, party, for which they are arguing.

    The phrase partisan advocate could be describing someone who is an advocate who is arguing along party lines or it could be talking about somebody who advocates on behalf of the partisans. Context should tell you which one is applicable in your case.

    • 3
      Of course the two overlap, in that a partisan is by necessity an advocate for their party. Conversely though, it does happen that someone goes against their party line on a given issue to the extent of being an advocate for something their party opposes; then in being an advocate they are not being a partisan, though they might well be a partisan at other times.
      – Jon Hanna
      Feb 9, 2013 at 23:55
    • @JonHanna- Yes, quite right.
      – Jim
      Feb 9, 2013 at 23:56

    You will find references to a partisan advocate in order to distinguish that role from that of a dispassionate advocate.

    When an (alleged) mass murderer and ethnic cleanser is brought before the International Criminal Court, he is entitled to have his defence presented by someone as skilled as the prosecutor. We trust that the person who does this is not also an adherent to the distasteful beliefs underling the crimes.

    Last year the revolutionary government of Libya asserted that the advocate for Saif al Islam (son of Gaddafi) was exceeding that role and acting in a partisan manner. Her rebuttal of that claim rested upon the difference between the two words.

    It might be supposed (in the context of your speech class) the most effective persuasive argument would come from a skilled advocate who has a partisan commitment to the case.

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