Looking at the definition of these words it appears they are pretty similar:

Pretentious: Having or showing the unpleasant quality of people who want to be regarded as more impressive, successful, or important than they really are [Merriam-Webster]

Ostentatious: Displaying wealth, knowledge, etc., in a way that is meant to attract attention, admiration, or envy [Merriam-Webster]

The way I usually see pretentious being used infers a kind of naivete (an under-educated/lower class person trying to sound intelligent/aristocratic) were as an ostentatious person is upper class, but is flaunting it in an arrogant/gaudy way. Am I way off base here?

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    The thing that seems farthest off base is the first sentence saying that the words are very similar. As you say later, they aren't really very similar at all and can almost never be substituted for each other the way a true synonym can. – Oldcat Jul 18 '14 at 18:35
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    OP appears to think intelligent/aristocratic are closely related concepts. In the context of that level of understanding, I think the pretentious/ostentatious distinction is probably a bit too subtle. – FumbleFingers Jul 18 '14 at 18:38
  • Was not implying intelligent/aristocratic are closely related just that one can be pretentious or ostentatious in regards to either. Maybe I should have said "intelligent or aristocratic" instead of "intelligent/aristocratic" – user1028270 Jul 18 '14 at 18:45
  • You're slightly off base: 'ostentatious' doesn't refer to class at all, it merely means 'showy'. 'Pretentious' in a de facto way, does refer to class, as in having pretensions to something you're not. It's usually the lower classes aping the upper classes, but an 'inverted snob' is pretentious too. – Pete855217 Jul 20 '14 at 6:44

No. I think you're spot-on correct. At least that's how I see things.

A pretentious person is pretending (same etymology) to be something or someone he or she is not.

An ostentatious person, on the other hand, delights in flaunting who he or she is and/or what they have. An expression which may reflect the lifestyle of the "rich and famous" is "conspicuous consumption"!

What both pretentious and ostentatious people have in common is their desire to "be seen" by others, or to be the center of attention, whether for ego gratification, perhaps, or out of feelings of insecurity, inferiority, or some other neurosis (for want of a better word ).

  • Marking this as the answer because of that etymological fact bomb you dropped on me. That's pretty cool I never knew that. – user1028270 Jul 18 '14 at 18:37
  • @user1028270: You're welcome. Thanks for noticing. Don – rhetorician Jul 18 '14 at 18:39

No, that sounds pretty on-point, what you have. I'd argue that anyone can be pretentious regardless of class, though. In a nutshell, being ostentatious is flaunting what you have in a ridiculous, over-the-top way, be it wealth, knowledge, skills, or whatever, while being pretentious is flaunting what you think you have and what you think you should have. Generally, being pretentious is the more negative of the two, since it comes with a certain arrogance and an undeserved sense of entitlement.

  • Cool. So say, for example, a college professor who insists on incessantly working erudite language into every conversation would be ostentatious because while they are intelligent, they're also being an arrogant dick about it- right? – user1028270 Jul 18 '14 at 18:34
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    Precisely. They've got this massive vocabulary, and they want to shove it in all your faces. If someone was walking around spitting out big words that they didn't know the meaning to, that's pretentious. Exactly as rhetorician said above, they'd be pretending! – fuandon Jul 18 '14 at 18:44

I think your analysis of the distinction between the words is pretty good. However, pretentiousness doesn't require naiveté or even deception, (except perhaps self-deception.) One can be both ostentatious and pretentious. In fact, I think that the word ostentatious could nearly always be replaced by pretentious without losing meaning.

The difference is that pretentious often carries the judgement of the person using the word that the knowledge, wealth or importance of the person described is undeserved or overblown.

  • Regarding "ostentatious could nearly always be replaced by pretentious without losing meaning" I think that's wrong. Someone with wealth is not being pretentious when flashing it around, but they are being ostentatious. – Shawn Taylor Jul 20 '14 at 15:56

Both ostentatious and pretentious people are "show-offs."

The difference between the two is that ostentatious people actually have what they purport to have, and pretentious people only "pretend" to.

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