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What's the difference between 'resolve' and 'solve'?

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  • I've always considered that if a problem was 'resolved', it's been solved for at least the second time. Why can't that hold true?
    – Tim
    May 31, 2020 at 9:49

4 Answers 4

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First of all, resolve has several meanings. There is one meaning that is clearly closest to solve, which I will assume is the one you want to differentiate.

So: When you resolve something (a problem, an issue, a question), you deal with it conclusively. You have finished it, it is done, there is nothing left to concern yourself about. This is not to say, however, that your handling of the matter was ideal, nor even necessarily satisfactory; there are many possible ways that the thing could have been dealt with, you picked one and saw it through.

When you solve something, you find (and presumably implement) a solution to it. This means that you have dealt with it successfully, finding what was quite possibly the only way (or at most one of a few ways) to succeed.

For example:

The issue has been resolved, although none of us is happy with the final outcome.

The question has been solved; the correct answer is posted for all to see.

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  • 6
    I'm not sure one can really 'solve' a question. One answers a question and solves a problem. I suspect, however, that many would agree that one can solve a question.
    – Mike G
    Sep 2, 2014 at 4:24
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Resolve is used to mean the end of a conflict--"The differences between the two parties were resolved."

Solve is used to mean the solution to a logical problem--"He solved the math puzzle."

http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=resolve

http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=solve

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  • Strictly speaking, resolve can mean the end of nearly anything: "This chord progression is about to resolve."
    – MrHen
    Mar 24, 2011 at 21:36
  • 2
    For me, resolve is used to end something problematic or where there are at least two opposing sides involved. More general than a conflict, but not "anything" as MrHen commented.
    – B Seven
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:41
  • @MrHen I would say, informally speaking, that the word resolve can be used in relation to the end of nearly anything. Strictly, it's probably better used in situations with some sort of conflict as others have mentioned.
    – Mike G
    Sep 2, 2014 at 4:32
  • In the case of the chord progression, it is when the dissonant chord proceeds to the consonant once that the progression resolves. So the idea of conflict is present here. Jul 11, 2017 at 16:57
  • You can resolve a problem but that means settling the dispute and stopping people fighting, rather than solving it like a math problem or King Solomon cutting the baby in half (Solomon managed to resolve it, without that.)
    – Stuart F
    Mar 4, 2023 at 15:49
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Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984) offers the following useful discussion of how solve and resolve differ in precise sense within the area where their meanings broadly overlap:

solve, resolve, unfold, unravel, decipher can all mean to make clear or apparent or intelligible what is obscure or mysterious or incomprehensible. Solve is the most general in meaning and suggestion in this group; it implies the finding of a satisfactory answer or solution, usually to something of at least moderate difficulty {the mystery and disquieting meaninglessness of existence ... were solved for me now—L. P. Smith} {create a difficulty rather than solve one—A. M. Young} Resolve [...], as contrasted with solve, is likely to indicate analytic arrangement and consideration of the various phases or items of a problem or situation rather than finding a final solution or answer and is likely to suggest dispelling of confusion or perplexity by a clear formulation of questions or issues {you may find it of some interest to be told that the law has had to struggle with these problems and to know how it has resolved them—[Benjamin] Cardozo} In some situations this process may achieve an answer, especially a ready or summary one {he was at the same time resolving successive tangles of intrigue against himself and his policy—[Hilaire] Belloc} {it was realized that the method of resolving apparent contradictions by liquidating one of the contradictories is not the way to arrive at true solutions—Times Lit[erary] Sup[plement]}

It is certainly true that solve applies more generally than resolve does to a wide array of objects. Consider The following Ngram plots (in each case covering the period 1900–2019) for "solve an equation" (blue line) versus "resolve an equation" (red line):

(The Ngram graph—as opposed to chart—for the above comparison is at this URL, in case the link for the chart doesn't work for some reason.)

For "solve a mystery" (blue line) versus "resolve a mystery":

(The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

And for "solve a riddle" (blue line) versus "resolve a riddle" (red line):

(The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

On the other hand resolve has a sense of "permanently settle" that doesn't come through in MW's treatment of that word. And this sense of the expression leads (I think) to its more frequent use in English in such comparisons as "solve a dispute" (blue line) versus "resolve a dispute" (red line):

(The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

For "solve a disagreement" (blue line) versus "resolve a disagreement" (red line):

(The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

And for "solve an argument" (blue line) versus "resolve an argument" (red line):

(The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

How do these two sets of phrases differ? In my view, the key difference is that the instances where English speakers strongly prefer "solve a[n] X" to "resolve a[n] X" are ones in which a single correct answer ("solution") is anticipated, whereas the instances in which they prefer "resolve a[n] X" involve situations where the outcome ("resolution") is the product of negotiation or deliberation or arbitrary fiat but is not inevitable: different parties to the issue, different judges or different arbiters might come reach a different resolution.

Of course, the most frequent point of overlap between solve and resolve involves the phrases "solve a problem" (blue line) versus "resolve a problem" (red line), which match up in Ngram as follows:

The Ngram graph for the above comparison is at this URL.)

Here, despite the huge number of times "solve a problem" appears in print in a purely mathematical sense, instances of "resolve a problem" still appear frequently enough to register as a measurable percentage at the scale of this Ngram chart.

I draw two conclusions from this last Ngram chart. First, the mathematical precision implicit in "solve a problem" (as in "solve an equation") conveys a stronger sense of indisputable and inevitable correctness to the phrase even when it is used in contexts where the result may not be indisputable or inevitable. Second, the comparative unpredictability of the result in "resolve a problem" may be responsible for the evident inclination of Merriam-Webster—and perhaps English speakers generally—to underestimate the potential permanence implicit in resolve. There is no reason to suppose that most instances in which parties resolve a dispute involve merely temporary settlements. To the contrary, the point of such a resolution is to put the controversy behind both parties so that they can move forward without its unsettled status hanging over their heads.

Nevertheless, owing to its association with mathematical solutions, solve often carries a sense of ironclad definitiveness and (perhaps) inevitable rightness that the more context-dependent resolve does not.

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  • Where is it in the dictionary? I can't find it in merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/resolve#faqs or merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resolve#synonym-discussion
    – Tim
    Apr 29 at 22:09
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    @Tim: It's a print dictionary from Merriam-Webster. The full title is Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms: A Dictionary of Discriminated Synonyms with Antonyms and Analogous and Contrasted Words. You can find the discussion quoted in my answer at this URL (from a Google Books search).
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 29 at 22:32
  • Thanks. could you comment on the differences between these WM books? Which one is the best?
    – Tim
    Apr 30 at 0:43
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    Over the past fifty years or so, Merriam-Webster has published a bookshelf's worth of specialized dictionaries: the Collegiate Dictionary, which is an abridged version of the very large Third New International Dictionary (originally published in 1961); the Dictionary of Synonyms (very similar to the original 1941 edition from MW and focusing on distinctions in meaning that are often more precise than everyday usage would tend to support); a Dictionary of English Usage (largely dedicated to exposing the flimsy bases of most usage rules taught in U.S. schools ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 30 at 1:24
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    ... in the middle of the 20th century); a Dictionary of Word Histories; a Dictionary of Allusions; a Geographical Dictionary; a Biographical Dictionary; a Thesaurus; a Style Manual; a Secretarial Handbook; and undoubtedly others. I own copies of the ones identified by name here—and because my interests tend to be historical, I find them useful in approximately the order in which I've listed them above. But depending on your particular needs, the relative value of these reference works will vary.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 30 at 1:24
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I think that re-solution means that you need to separate two or more entities. Therefore, resolution also stands for measurement quality: the stronger is your optics or sensors, the finer you can find the difference (between objects). Otherwise, if your resolution is too low, the objects look fused and you are confused. Confusion is opposite to resolution in the sense that you cannot separate the fused entities. Solution, on the other hand, means that you have only one task, one question and, if answer is found, you have solved it. You have nothing to distinguish between.

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