Are the words contentious and controversial synonymous AND interchangeable? or is there some difference in some contexts or in emphasis? For example, take this sentence I found in an excerpt from a book, "....the answers would be complicated and hugely revealing. The answers would also be contentious and controversial." if they are indeed interchangeable then it should have been considered redundant to use both words in a sentence, so I am wondering if the two words have slightly differing meanings.

  • 1
    I recommend Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms for this kind of question. I have one and use it constantly.
    – Ornello
    Oct 21, 2014 at 16:15
  • What meanings did you find in a dictionary that make the distinction unclear to you?
    – SrJoven
    Oct 21, 2014 at 16:26
  • ^ @SrJoven I just googled it. I lost my Oxford Dictionary some time ago :( Oct 21, 2014 at 17:41

1 Answer 1


When applied to things like issues (that might generate contention/contentiousness/controversy) it's probably pointless trying to impose some kind of distinction.

But when applied to people, usually a controversial person is someone that others argue about because they have different opinions about him (not necessarily because of anything he says - perhaps some people just don't like the colour of his skin, or the fact that he had a sex-change op).

On the other hand, a contentious person usually means someone who habitually argues. In principle, such a person may generate very little controversy (everyone else may be in complete agreement that he's tiresomely quarrelsome over things no-one else really cares about).

  • contentious can also be applied to the debate itself, often over a controversial topic.
    – Barmar
    Oct 21, 2014 at 17:32
  • @Barmar: Indeed - but if you forced people to distinguish between contentious/controversial debate, I imagine that of the (relatively few) people who were prepared to make a distinction at all, the majority would say a contentious debate was one conducted in an argumentative manner (where the fact of being contentious is an "internal" attribute). A controversial debate, on the other hand, would be one generating strong feelings in others (either about the issues raised by the debate, or about the fact of holding the debate in the first place). Oct 21, 2014 at 19:21

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