Today, I read an article, and one sentence talked about

treating other people with dignity and respect

I had thought I understood the difference between the words dignity and respect. But then I realized that I didn't understand — at least in the above context. I checked out the definitions on dictionary.com, m-w.com, etc. and I still didn't get it.

What is difference between the two words dignity and respect in this context?

  • 1
    I think it's semantically odd, because the only way I can make sense of the dignity part is to take it to mean "treating other people in a way which upholds their dignity".
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 10, 2013 at 22:54
  • 1
    I think you ought to include some of the better definitions that you found within this question. It's a courtesy. Otherwise, we'll all have to check out the definitions, same way you did.
    – J.R.
    Jun 11, 2013 at 0:57
  • 1
    @Colin Fine: I think to treat with dignity is most easily understood as in a dignified manner, corresponding to in a respectful manner. If you start by assuming you're giving respect, the counterpart doesn't really work with dignity. Jun 11, 2013 at 3:07
  • 2
    Every time I read this question, I imagine Rodney Dangerfield saying, "I can't get no dignity."
    – J.R.
    Jun 11, 2013 at 14:27
  • @J.R. That's it exactly.
    – MetaEd
    Jun 11, 2013 at 18:51

5 Answers 5


Dignity is honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated. Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.

In your example context, there is considerable overlap of connotation, and one could be used in place of the other. In other contexts, it would be hard to do so. For example, we can refer to the dignity (honorableness) of an action, but can’t meaningfully substitute respect. And we can refer to things differing in some respect (from some viewpoint), but can’t meaningfully substitute dignity.

Dignity identifies a worthy, high, and honorable condition. When person A treats person B with dignity, it means person A acknowledges person B’s dignity (worth or value). This is also seen in the verb dignify: if I say “I refuse to dignify that with an answer”, I mean I refuse to treat the question as worth answering: it’s not me, but the question itself that lacks dignity.¹

Respect identifies the act of paying attention or proper consideration, and by extension the act of viewing someone as worthy of such consideration. When person A treats person B with respect, it means person A takes proper notice of person B, according person B due care and honor. This is also seen in the verb to respect: if I say “I refuse to respect that decision”, I mean I refuse to treat the decision as worthy of respect: it’s me, not the decision, that lacks respect.²

It is helpful to look at the etymology of these words, because their meanings reflect their history. Dignity comes from the Latin noun dignus, “worth”, and is related to other valuing words such as dignitary, dainty, deign, disdain, and indignation.³ Respect comes from the Latin verb respicere, literally “look back at”, and is related to other viewing words such as spectator, spectacles, and inspect.


It might be easier to have answered this question had you given a little more detail about the context in which you read it - but, with that proviso, here's my two-pennyworth!

I agree that there is considerable overlap between the two terms, dignity and respect, yet they do often be seem to be used together. One context that is fairly common and topical in the UK at the moment is in the treatment of patients - and particularly elderly patients - in hospital.

In that particular context, I tend to think of dignity as referring to the manner in which they are 'physically' treated or handled, e.g. handling them in a private cubicle with curtains properly drawn, treating their physical body with respect and privacy as far as possible even when having to help them dress/undress or having to help with private and/or intimate functions.

On the other side, I think of respect as 'dignity' for their 'inner person', for their wishes and desires: listening to what they want and to their preferences, and responding to them, even if you cannot meet their wishes or they are inappropriate for medial reasons - not just doing what you think is necessary and ignoring what they are saying. Give them at least a moment of time, rather than ignore them completely.

That's how I distinguish between the two in that particular type of circumstance: whether others agree, or can explain the differences in clearer terms, ....

  • To given more context, the article is here: newsday.com/news/region-state/…. The sentence is: "As mayor of the city, I expect that all police officers will act professionally and treat all persons with dignity and respect," Boughton wrote. Thanks
    – pnvn
    Jun 10, 2013 at 23:39
  • Thanks. I won't attempt to comment on US usage in that context, except to say that it appears that both physical and verbal treatment by the police officer were questionable and it's again possible that there could be an implied difference. Equally, it's possible that the mayor was just using a common expression without thinking about it fully.
    – TrevorD
    Jun 10, 2013 at 23:55
  • Thanks for taking the time to respond! StackExchange doesn't let me mark your response as answer because I don't have enough points/reputation.
    – pnvn
    Jun 11, 2013 at 0:10
  • @pnvn I do not believe you need to earn reputation before you can accept an answer to your question. See: meta.stackexchange.com/a/5235/171321
    – MetaEd
    Jun 28, 2013 at 3:49

Let me see if a different perspective works. I read your answers and a lot of it makes sense. Totally. Yet, I was left with this confusion as to whether the framers of that phrase did so because of the fluidity when said or because they intended actually to differentiate the concepts. Here I believe they actually mean two different concepts.

Respect : Respect is an inner function. It requires one person to look into the other persons viewpoint and attempt to see it from their perspective. The person wanting respect may not be in a position of choice to leave the situation when treated with disrespect. The person wanting respect may or may not be deserving of respect but expects to be treated respectfully in so far as the interaction is concerned. However there may be disagreement between the two people which can be valid and neither party agrees to compromise in order to be treated with respect. The situational example is a supervisor supervisee. The supervisor may disagree with the supervisee about a viewpoint. However the supervisee may want to be treated with respect and likewise the supervisor.

Dignity : Dignity is being treated in a dignified manner. Taking into account the other persons limitations, station in life, older in years etc... The person wanting dignity may not be interested in the respect of the other person, but they want to be treated in a dignified manner. The person giving dignity does not have to respect the other person. They merely have to treat them in a dignified manner. The situational example is a service rendered between two parties. The service has been paid for. The person rendering the service agrees to do in a dignified manner irrespective of whether they respect the person who is receiving the service. Likewise the person receiving the service expects dignity, but has no corresponding expectation of respect.

I apologize, I dont have references for this. Just my thought process based on answers so far and my own perception of the words.


Garner's Modern English Usage has this to say -


If someone knows how to embed this image please help. I had no luck with it.

One observation on the usage. As Trevor pointed out, this use of dignity is frequently encountered in health care. It is idiomatic there, and seems to have developed a specific meaning. It is often used as a synonym for equality in patient treatment, regardless of race, health status, or social background. Here is a nice example of that -



Dignity is giving the person the space not to be teased, prompted, provoked or delighted with guessing their response. Respect is listening to their opinion and allow that to be that person's position.

  • Welcome to English.se. When giving an answer it's best to provide sources! You can also use paragraphs.
    – virmaior
    Feb 12, 2014 at 1:14

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