This one has bugged me for a while. I've always been under the impression that sympathy doesn't have to mean pity. But everyone else tells me I'm dead wrong. So does sympathy always mean pity?

6 Answers 6


Sympathy and pity have a synonymous convergence, but also diverge in some respects.

In addition to its meaning of pity, sympathy can refer to a special kind of understanding that two or more people share.

I had a special sympathy for Martha's desire to excel in math, since I too loved math and wanted to see someone from our family do well.

See? No pity involved. The word actually comes from the Greek for "with feeling". It means to resonate emotionally with someone else. It can also be an acoustic term. Push down the sostenuto pedal on a piano and make a loud shout, preferably singing. You will hear the piano strings resonate faintly. This is called "sympathetic vibration." That is a direct physical analogue to the emotional resonance I'm talking about.

  • Darn. You beat me by a minute! At least we focused on different aspects of what makes them different. :)
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 1:11
  • @Robusto: I don't have a problem with your example as perfectly valid, and highlighting use of sympathy without any sense of pity. But if 'had a special sympathy for' means anything different to empathised with, I don't get it. Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 2:03
  • @FumbleFingers: sympathy is the understanding between people, shared emotion ... empathy describes the ability to share those feelings.
    – Robusto
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 2:34
  • @Robusto: I like your definitions distinguishing the actual words sympathy and empathy. But I still can't conceptualise any difference between your had a special sympathy for and the alternative empathised with. Can you? Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 13:11
  • @FumbleFingers: had a special sympathy for means something like "had a soft spot for", while empathized with is closer to "understood". Also, Robusto's example could be rephrased as "I sympathized with Martha's desire..." without significantly changing the meaning.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 2:26

You are correct. In fact sympathy doesn't mean pity at all. It means a shared pain or close emotional feeling. I feel bad because you feel bad. You can pity someone who doesn't feel bad at all and for varied reasons. For instance, I might pity the fool. Sympathy requires a similar feeling in the person I'm sympathizing with.

  • +1 Pitying someone who doesn't feel bad themselves is a good point that never entered my head.
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 1:14

No... Tell your friends to look in a dictionary! That's what I tell mine...With a fair bit of grumbling...Which they deserve! :)

Just a sample of the different definitions from http://www.Merriam-Webster.com

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other

versus Pity: sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy

From the definitions, it's obvious that "pity" can't be considered as more than a specific type of sympathy.

"Sympathy" literally means "feeling with" someone, or something, in certain, usually more artistic, contexts. If you feel really bad over a friend's loss, you sympathise, and, in that case, possibly pity them. However, if you get really happy and excited hearing that a friend won the lottery, you're sympathising again, but you obviously don't "pity" them.

I, personally, wouldn't call pity some subset of sympathy. I would say you can pity starving children, even if you don't know any starving child personally and have never been hungry in your life. I would not use sympathy in that context. Still, that's a nitpick if ever there was one. In real life, "feeling bad" can be described as sympathy or pity more or less interchangeably, but only in that one sense.

If you're interested, the etymologies also show that they don't even come from the same root-word or anything:

Sympathy's etymology: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sympathy

And pity's: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pity

  • Don't forget to look in a dictionary yourself before you tell your friends to look in a dictionary.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 4:36
  • 1
    @MrHen: Errm...Could you explain, please? If you didn't notice I did look in the dictionary. I even put some dictionary definitions in my answer. Are you aware of a dictionary that contradicts Merriam-Webster in this case? I'd like to know if there is. I get most of my vocabulary from reading, so if I've garnered the wrong definition from whatever context, or missed some nuance, I do want to know.
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 5:08
  • My comment was not directed at you but other people who would be reading it. As in, telling your friends to read a dictionary is great advice. Just don't forget to look before they do (in case you were wrong and not them.)
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 13:12
  • @MrHen Hahaha! Okay. That is definitely good advice to avoid embarrassment. Thanks for clarifying! I am too easily confused sometimes...:)
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 13:29

Sympathy and pity are different words, so inevitably they will have or acquire some subtle differences in meaning, connotations, and usage. But so far as I'm concerned the differences are so small the choice of one or the other rarely affects any speaker's utterance or hearer's understanding.

The big difference is between both those words and empathy. To be honest it seems to me other answers seem to be redefining sympathy to mean empathy, simply so they can contrast this with pity.

  • 1
    ...If anything, I'd say empathy and sympathy have a lot more in common with each other than do sympathy and pity. Also: I didn't make up the definitions in my answer. Just saying'.
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 1:43

Several acquaintances who spent time in the US military make liberal use of the phrase "sucks to be you", when they hear of some modest difficulty in another persons life.

It gets used in both laughing with you and laughing at you senses, but in the former seems to convey exactly sympathy without pity.

They recognize that you are in for a hard time, have the empathy to comprehend your misfortune, and don't feel the least bit sorry for you because they know that life is like that and everyone gets the short end of the stick sometimes.

  • Perhaps you meant, "sucks to be you"?
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 21:53

Look at Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.