What's the difference in being extemporaneous, being spontaneous and being impulsive?

Or, when, where, - in which situation - would you rather use them?

4 Answers 4


Extemporaneous, as its roots indicate, is a response that is made up on the spur of the moment. Note the operative words made up, and moment. (Syn.: extemporaneous, extemporary, extempore, impromptu, offhand, unrehearsed, unpremeditated, ad-lib) etymonline: "without preparation, without time to prepare,"

A spontaneous response is involuntary, one is aware of it and 'lets it take control' and not try to make up an alternate response. (Syn.: spontaneous, impulsive, instinctive, involuntary, automatic) etymonline: "of one's own accord, willingly;"

An impulsive response is an overreaching reaction that leaves no chance for external control. etymonline: "rash, characterized by impulses,"

You are asked an unexpected question. You decide to answer it. Quickly think up something nice to say, and there you are with an extemporaneous response.

You are asked an unexpected question. You get a gut-feeling that the response ought to be a certain 'this.' Should you use the gut-feeling? Should you suppress it and think again before responding? The choice is yours. You can chose to be spontaneous if you like.

You are asked an unexpected question. And before you know it, you have uttered something in response. You find yourself in a situation where you were not in control of your reaction. However, you understand that the utterance was prompted by the nature of the question. Some of the times, it is possible to be aware or and in control of one's impulsive reactions. However, generally they are highly autonomous. Like when you scratch yourself in response to a bug bite! (Kids do it, grown ups don't? Maturity, control.)


The three of them are somewhat related words, with use differing in terms of context.

Merriam Webster and other online dictionaries give out the following understanding:

Extemporaneous: A lot of times used for unprepared speeches and verbal conversations.

Spontaneous: Occurrences urged from natural impulse or inclination towards something, and not driven by external factors.

Impulsive: Involving actions carried out of an impulse instead of careful thought.

To be honest, the use of above three really depends on the context and examples can bring out the difference more clearly.

"John couldn't make it to the UTI seminar, so Lisa had to deliver an extemporaneous speech."

"The comment was completely spontaneous."

"She made an impulsive decision to marry at an early age."


If any of this can help;"Extemporaneous" is for someone who has a propensity for improvisation such as extroverted type of personality would be, and/or is at ease with rhetoric, now for "Spontaneous" to my view it connotes at its core of someone being slightly "outspoken" and to a lesser degree "candid", thus to its detriment sometime; finally, as for "Impulsive" we are entering in the realms of psychiatry, where potential offensive behaviors are compounded by frustrations, amounting of "being on the edge" like.


Extemporaneous denotes an externality, often unplanned.

Spontaneous is internally driven. It is most common of the three.

Impulsive is a combination of them with a habitual connotation that remains definitively undefined; begging the philosophical question of is a repeated impulsive tendency impulsive or regular?

  • 1
    Hi, James Rourke—and welcome to English Language& Usage. Your explanations of the three terms are certainly plausible, but at this site we appreciate answers that include documentation/support from major sources (such as the Oxford English Dictionary) when the answers focus on explanations of the type you provide here. Please consider citing specific language from one or more reputable reference works in support of your definitions.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 4, 2016 at 5:48

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