A sage is wise. That young woman is clever.

Both of them (I think) are good at not getting into unwanted trouble, and both are good at solving problems.

So.. Is there a difference between being clever and being wise?

  • To start things off, what does a dictionary say?
    – Mitch
    Jul 14 '14 at 19:36
  • Probably the difference between your RPG character having an 18 Intelligence and having an 18 Wisdom.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 14 '14 at 21:43
  • 2
    Knowledge is knowing Tomato is a fruit Wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad Jul 15 '14 at 6:29
  • @T.E.D., what is RPG?
    – Raj More
    Jul 17 '14 at 22:45
  • 1
    One problem you've got is that "clever" has at least 3 different definitions (that I can think of). But I don't think that any of those definitions can be considered to mean the same as "wise".
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 3 '15 at 4:09

10 Answers 10


As I use the terms -- and I grant that there may be variation in usage --

Cleverness/intelligence is the ability to solve a problem.

Wisdom is the ability to know whether the problem needs to be solved, whether it's the right problem, and whether it's a problem at all.

(MIT had many students who were extremely intelligent, but some of them didn't have the wisdom God gave a goose.)

  • 1
    Authority? Especially for the last sentence?
    – bib
    Jul 14 '14 at 17:37
  • Authority for that last sentence: Having shared a dorm with them. For the rest: Dictionaries appear to agree with my usage of wisdom versus intelligence. Binding "cleverness" to the former may be a matter of local usage.
    – keshlam
    Jul 14 '14 at 17:45
  • 1
    To confirm this answer: Consider how you would distinguish a clever solution from a wise solution. The clever one often demonstrates uncommon knowledge or intuition, but isn't necessarily the best choice. The wise one may be nothing special as a solution but it addresses the real need unusually well (a good combination of minimizing effort, not having other costs later, and so on).
    – keshlam
    Jul 14 '14 at 18:52

The word clever can have a negative connotation:

Jim was a clever klepto! (i.e., kleptomaniac)

Sally had a clever way of not paying the taxes she owed.

The team was adept and clever, being able to put a positive spin on even the worst circumstances.

Clever can also have a positive connotation:

Dr. Blalock had a clever assistant who designed a special surgical tool for performing open-heart surgery on "blue babies."

I commend you, Brad, for your clever and elegant solution to an intractable problem!

The word wise can be used in a pejorative and negative sense, but it usually requires the addition of a modifier to do so. Examples one and two are negative; examples three and four are positive.

  1. Don't be a wise-guy [or wise-a_ _], Mr. Smarty Pants.

  2. Murphy's cracking wise was totally out of character for him.

  3. The judge was a wise woman who made wise decisions.

  4. We are too soon wizened and too late wise.

In conclusion, to be clever is to put knowledge to use in creative ways with outside-of-the-box kind of thinking. The use to which the knowledge is put, determines whether the cleverness is positive or negative.

To be wise is to apply knowledge to real-life situations--problems, challenges, and so on. Without the modifiers I refer to above, however, it is (almost) always a positive thing. Often, wisdom is contrasted with folly, stupidity, indecisiveness, waffling, ignorance, and other negative words (although ignorance can also be a neutral word meaning simply "not knowing").

  • Some excellent usage examples here. The Classical Greek word sophia, though the name of a virtue, meant cleverness as much as it meant wisdom; but thanks in part to influence from the Hebrew scriptures, nowadays wisdom tends to imply a spiritual enlightenment. Jul 14 '14 at 17:31
  • @BrianDonovan But the Greek root sophos also leads to sophist and sophistry.
    – bib
    Jul 14 '14 at 17:37
  • @bib: So it does; why But? Jul 14 '14 at 17:56
  • @BrianDonovan A sophist is not wise and only arguably clever.
    – bib
    Jul 14 '14 at 18:02
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    @WhatRoughBeast: You've got me thinking. OTOH, you can't have too much wisdom or be too wise. OTOH, if you only THINK you're wise, but aren't really, then you are simply "wise in your own eyes," which is a negative thing, n'est-ce pas? Sure, there are always going to be some cultural differences in how wisdom is defined, but from the Western tradition going back to ancient Greek comedy, of the two stock characters, the alazon (posturing braggart; thinks he knows more than he does) and the eiron (self-deprecating character; feigns ignorance but is wise), the former is (-) & the latter, (+). Jul 15 '14 at 3:41

A clever person has a quick intellect that can come up with complex solutions to difficult problems. A wise person makes good decisions. The clever solution may not be wise (it might be morally suspect, risky or overly complex) and the wise solution is often not "clever" (it may be very simple).

Cleverness is often associated with youth, and wisdom with age, although the connection is not a necessary one.

  • A clever solution can be very simple, too. The distinction I think comes down to creativity and spontaneity vs. prudence and foresight
    – 16807
    Aug 7 '16 at 17:54

Definitions from Dictionary.com:


adjective, clev·er·er, clev·er·est.

  1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
  2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
  3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
  4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble.
  5. Older Use. a. suitable; convenient; satisfactory. b. good-natured. c. handsome. d. in good health.


adjective, wis·er, wis·est.

  1. having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right; possessing discernment, judgment, or discretion.
  2. characterized by or showing such power; judicious or prudent: a wise decision.
  3. possessed of or characterized by scholarly knowledge or learning; learned; erudite: wise in the law.
  4. having knowledge or information as to facts, circumstances, etc.: We are wiser for their explanations.
  5. Slang. informed; in the know: You're wise, so why not give us the low-down?

A person can be born clever, but can only become wise with life experience.


A clever driver will weave in and out of traffic and take all the shortcuts to get you there on time. A wise driver will start early to get you there safely and on time.


Cleverness could be used inappropriately. For example a clever thief might figure out how to steal a diamond but get caught years later. A wise person would not steal the diamond.


Knowledge is knowing how things should work. Wisdom is understanding how they actually work. Clever is wit disguised as knowledge. Wit is the currency of wisdom. Like using context clues to understand the meaning of a word you don't know. That's clever.

  • Hi Chris, welcome to ELU! Do you have any links to back this up?
    – Nicole
    May 12 '15 at 18:37

The wise man knows that a tomato is a fruit, but the clever man knows not to put the tomato in a fruit salad, but in a normal salad.

  • 1
    I would argue it from a slightly different angle: A clever man knows how to extract a pack of cigarettes from a cigarette vending machine without paying. A wise man knows that smoking will kill you.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 2 '16 at 1:10

Wisdom is personally gained. Of one's own fa ulty and person/volition.

Cleverness or the wit of it is the ability to enjoin separate or distinct ideas to cohort a more plausible direction as it is in description. Often intiitive over formulaic, as there is only the self or subject to account for. Math is more formulaic due to its generalities.

I think.

  • Can you fix some typos in your answer? Also, what do you mean by "Wisdom is personally gained"? Do you mean cleverness can't be personally gained?
    – user140086
    May 2 '16 at 3:06

being clever is getting the result keeping ends in mind and accordingly choose the means. being wise is the deep understanding of consequences of action, and therefore always keeping the means in mind, with hope for results, the ends


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