As these terms are defined in online dictionaries, ignorant means a lack of education, while naïve means a lack of worldly experience.

  • What is the practical difference between these two?
  • When would I use one and not the other?

We could consider education to be the acquisition of knowledge, and experience to be knowledge acquired first-hand. In that case, these two words would have no practical difference, yet I have had people strongly disagree with me in some discussions.

One person tried to explain that ignorant is when a person doesnt know about something, whereas naïve is when a person does or should know about something but fails to act on the knowledge or fails to acquire the knowledge before acting.

Could someone please clarify?

  • 2
    If the person is unable to function in a given setting because of a lack of knowledge- that person is ignorant. If the person believes everything they're told without a healthy amount of skepticism and "common sense" that person is naive.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 3:30
  • 1
    The OED has nine sub-categories of meaning for 'ignorant' and four for 'naive'. If you do not have access to the OED any good dictionary should help you on to the right lines here.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 14:41
  • 'Naive' is the opposite of 'cynical'. If you are naive, that may imply that you are ignorant of certain facts (like expectations of poor behavior of certain people) or it could mean that you think the best of people. One may be ignorant of algorithms for extracting roots of numbers, but tat doesn't translate to naivete.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 17:00

4 Answers 4


There is good discussion of the semantic differences in other answers, but the most important practical difference is that ignorant is a very insulting word that you should be careful about using, whereas naïve is not such.

In general naïve makes me picture a hopeful child who has unrealistic dreams and has not thought about the real world enough, whereas ignorant makes me picture a dumb, racist old man who won’t change his worldview in the face of overwhelming evidence.

So, for instance:

  1. “I think you are being naïve, because...” is appropriate way to disagree with someone's theory at, say, a business meeting. It’s still a strong thing to say, and possibly condescending or belittling of your colleague’s theory.

  2. On the other hand, “I think you are being ignorant, because...” is quite rude and aggressive. It's not practically very different from saying stupid even though the semantics differ.

  • 1
    Both words do not have any emotional connotation, Hunter, though many words will have if you use them as a critique of someone else's character. To say that someone is 'ignorant' of, say, technology is simply a statement of fact; I would say I'm ignorant of anything to do with mathematics, and would readily accept that being said to me by someone else as simply being fact rather than insulting.
    – bamboo
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:14
  • 2
    @bamboo maybe it is a regional difference, but in America I would recommend strongly against saying someone else is ignorant about, say, mathematics, even if this is completely objectively true. (Of course it is always fine to say it about yourself.)
    – hunter
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:16
  • surely it can't be a cultural thing, isn't it down to self esteem? I'm old and have plenty of that NOW, though probably not when I was younger.
    – bamboo
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:42
  • 1
    Google has "discourteous or rude" listed as an informal synonym for ignorant. It's possible there's a generational difference in the connotative meaning of "ignorant." I often hear "ignorant" used to mean someone who has regressive opinions because they've failed to keep up with social advances as they aged. Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 15:48

"naive" (often naïve when just the adjective) emphasizes the immaturity of the person in that state. It implies that they lack experience that would make them aware. In other words, the expectation is that they are capable of knowing but do not yet.

She's naive, so she does not know he's toying with her.

"ignorant" implies an incapacity to know such that you don't expect them to learn.

He's so ignorant. That's why he doesn't understand French people.

  • Help me better understand. Do you disagree with @hunter here ?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 17:15

Naïve/naïveté and ignorant/ignorance are two different ways of looking at a person’s acquisition of knowledge.

The former pair denotes a person who could know something if they were open to it, but for some reason, they are not. Perhaps it’s a matter of inexperience, an unwillingness to learn, or immaturity.

The latter pair denotes a person who simply does not know. They haven’t learned ______. (Fill in the blank with — for example — French, how to keep his mouth shut, the art of diplomacy, the way we do things around here, etc.)

Unfortunately, in some places of the US, the ignorant/ignorance pair are used inappropriately, which user @virmaior, above, has done in the second example of their post.

Ignorant/ignorance need not indicate stupidity, dullness, or poor manners, but simple not knowing alone.

On the other hand, in the expression:

His willful ignorance is astounding,

there is the hint of stupidity, dullness, and poor manners, but the fact remains, the person who is spoken of still does not know. Perhaps the person has a hang-up about knowing something or has a mental block, or simply does not care to know.

In Pittsburgh where I live, ignorant is used as an insult; it has a negative denotation and connotation. Hey, as long as people understand what you mean, what’s the harm in being “incorrect”?

He’s so ignorant.


Must you be so ignorant?

  • I didn't follow how you think 'ignorant' is used incorrectly. Can you elaborate?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:57
  • In Pittsburgh, the word "ignorant" is used virtually as a synonym for "stupid," which I personally think is an incorrect use of a perfectly good word. True, both words do have negative connotations, especially "stupid," but still, "ignorant" should pack a little less punch than "stupid," in my opinion. By the way, I'm much more likely to say to a person who just pulled a bone-headed stunt, "Well, that was a stupid thing to do," rather than "Hey, stupid, nice move!" People tend to DO stupid things, and when they do, they probably (I would hope) feel bad enough. No need to add insult to injury. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 5:53

In the bumper-sticker version, it’s basically “Ignorance can be cured. Stupidity cannot.

I see naïve as more toward innocence or unawareness to the existence of something one could learn about, which wouldn’t quite be the same as ignorance.

For instance, a child could be naïve without being ignorant. With ignorance, at least there’s a potential to learn. Stupidity is refusal or inability to learn.

(I am not an expert, just my interpretation.)

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