Based on the comments on a question on another SE site, I'm trying to define the difference between something being "Dependent upon something" and being "reliant upon something".

The sentence in question was: "It is well know that if you feed animals that they become dependent." The comments devolved into a debate over whether the animals were dependent on the provided food, or whether they were reliant on it.

One contention was that the former is a subset of the latter - if you rely on something you can find other sources, but if you depend on it, you can't. The other was that they were entirely equivalent, which the dictionary seems to support.

Is there a correct usage? Are there implied differences that a straight dictionary lookup doesn't provide?

Edit: Answers based on the verb forms (depends and relies) would be fine, if they transfer over to these adjectives, but not ones based on the positive adjective form (dependable and reliable).

  • Please note: this is not a duplicate of this question, which addresses the code definition of dependence, or this one which asks about the positive adjectives. If there's another related question, I didn't see it when I checked.
    – Bobson
    Dec 12, 2013 at 22:57
  • Reliant is irrelevant to the context, dependent it is. Better than a detailed answer, a careful survey of usage can help see why.
    – Kris
    Dec 13, 2013 at 6:26
  • The question is not what is right in this case, but what is the difference in the words. Are they exact synonyms or is there a subtle context. The actual statement of contention was Are people dependant on food stamps or merely reliant and is there a difference in the wording. That was not used here to try and keep the political debate out of this question.
    – Chad
    Dec 13, 2013 at 13:27

3 Answers 3


The difference here is one indicates a choice where the other indicates absence of choices.

For instance a small African village is dependent on the rains to refill its wells. If the rains do not come there is no other way to fill the well. The village relies on the well to provide water. If the rains do not come then they will be forced to trek many miles on foot to the next nearest water source.

While it would not sound wrong to use depends on the well here it would be inaccurate. The village has other has options for water supply.

Also dependence infers reliance, but reliance does not infer dependence.


The idea that there's some semantic distinction based on the availability of alternatives is completely spurious. At that level, in OP's context the words are effectively synonymous.

But idiomatically, the fact is that reliant would probably never be used in that exact context. It's not used much in any context, for that matter. Consider...

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Offhand I can't think of any context where reliant would actually be the "preferred" term. But dependent is really the only acceptable option where it's just an "unqualified adjective" (i.e. - "These animals are dependent", as opposed to "These animals are reliant on human intervention").

My advice would be to forget the word reliant completely. You can probably use the verb forms depend/rely interchangeably in all relevant contexts, but only dependent can be relied upon in all adjectival contexts (but that's one case where I personally would prefer the verb form of to rely! :)

  • 1
    -1 Sorry, FF. Reliant is used in some contexts and it is possible even in the OP's context with an entirely different implication. And I want to say nGrams is not much help at all here, because the meaning with which reliant is used, esp., in scientific literature, makes it a much rarer word than dependent.
    – Kris
    Dec 13, 2013 at 6:29
  • I'd be willing to accept an answer partially based on the verb forms too, if you want to account for those.
    – Bobson
    Dec 13, 2013 at 14:25
  • @Kris: Well, I've got two downvotes already, so presumably at least one other user knows what you're getting at, and agrees. But OED tells me that reliant = a person who relies on someone; a dependent is both obsolete and rare. And all seven of their examples for the still-current "adjectival" sense are "qualified" (for example, reliant upon something). OED makes no mention of any special "scientific" meaning, so I really think the onus is on you to expand on your position. Dec 13, 2013 at 17:11
  • @Bobson: My NGram above shows that he is reliant is much less common that he is dependent, but this one shows that as a verb, "rely" is in fact significantly more common. Dec 13, 2013 at 17:16
  • I don't know how to do it in NGrams, but I know it's possible to exclude all instance where the adjective (dependent or reliant) is NOT followed by either on or upon. I believe if that were done, even the relatively small number of instances of reliant in my first chart would all disappear. I don't think I've ever heard bare reliant used to describe anyone or anything, but I can't rule out the possibility there's some rare specialised scientific context I'm not familiar with. We'll have to wait and see if Kris responds. Dec 13, 2013 at 17:24

The words are synonymous.

For instance a small African village relies on the rains to refill its wells. If the rains do not come there is no other way to fill the well. The village depends on the well to provide water. If the rains do not come then they will be forced to trek many miles on foot to the next nearest water source.

Dependence infers reliance, and reliance infers dependence.

  • This is not grammatically incorrect but it is inaccurate
    – Chad
    Dec 13, 2013 at 14:34
  • @Chad, does the village choose to rely on the rain to refill their well, or do they have no other option? (Could they trek many miles on foot to obtain water and throw that water in the well?)
    – user1873
    Dec 13, 2013 at 14:46
  • No because when the water table drops putting that water into the well will just be absorbed into the same layer that provides them with water when they do have the rains.
    – Chad
    Dec 13, 2013 at 15:06
  • @Chad, your understanding of physics is inconceivable. What if the villagers brought back trillions upon trillions of water droplets (like the rain), then would they refill their well?
    – user1873
    Dec 13, 2013 at 15:22
  • No a village could not transport enough water by hand from to fill the watertable of Central Africa. You should probably commit here: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/36296/geoscience so that you can learn why.
    – Chad
    Dec 13, 2013 at 15:24

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