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Could you please provide an example sentence for each adjective so that to show a situation when only one of the adjectives may be used while the others may not?

The thing that confuses me most is that the Longman dictionary of contemporary english defines these words like so:

First, it says something like "not a generous person":

  1. stingy: "informal not generous, especially with money"
  2. "a miserly person is not generous and does not like spending money"
  3. frugal: "careful to buy only what is necessary"

Then, it gives a second definition which boils down to "a small quantity":

  1. "a stingy amount of something, especially food, is too small"
  2. "a miserly amount or quantity is one that is much too small"
  3. "a frugal meal is a small meal of plain food"

So, "frugal" does stand out in a sence that it is mostly about food. However, all the three adjectives look way too similar. What's worse, they translate into exactly one in my native language.

  • 2
    There are no such things as exact synonyms. – Mitch Nov 4 '14 at 13:31
  • @Mitch fine, I've updated the question. – alisianoi Nov 4 '14 at 13:33
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    Nice edit, that adds a lot more and shows that we're not just doing your work for you. But I am confused. In the title, you order the words 1 frugal, 2 miserly, 3 stingy, but that doesn't seem to be the order in your text. Can you label the definitions in your first three? – Mitch Nov 4 '14 at 13:56
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    Re ELL... It would be fine either here or on ELL. This isn't basic, it involves nuances that aren't obvious and aren't spelled out in dictionaries so I think a good fit here. – Mitch Nov 4 '14 at 14:10
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    Some context might help: Ebenezer Scrooge was a miserly old man and as a result Tiny Tim's family was forced to be frugal. And you would call me stingy, as I am unlikely to buy you a Christmas present... You wouldn't call Scrooge frugal but you might call him stingy. Similarly, you wouldn't call me frugal and you probably wouldn't call me miserly because I might buy someone (besides myself) a Christmas present... – user3334690 Nov 4 '14 at 19:48
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First of all, frugal is not "mostly about food."

Second, the differences between the words should be apparent from dictionary definitions, but in case they're not:

Stingy and miserly are both pejorative. Frugal is usually used in a complimentary sense when applied to a person, and is neutral when describing an object (such as a "frugal meal").

Stingy is less severe than miserly. To call someone miserly is to make an extreme judgement about that person.

  • Alright. "This canteen serves frugal portions" is neutral then? But "This is a miserly portion" indicates disappointment? – alisianoi Nov 4 '14 at 14:33
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    When applied to the canteen it could be positive or negative, depending on the point of view. If you're on a diet, it's positive; if you're a gourmand, it's negative. But if you wanted to go negative for that issue, I'd suggest using stingy or even miserly, depending on how you felt. Frugal would be diplomatic by comparison. – Robusto Nov 4 '14 at 14:34
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    "Frugal" may be used in a sort of ironic sense, with a wink or air quotes, to imply "stingy" without saying it. Or it may be used in a neutral sense or as a complement -- one really needs to understand the context to tell which. "Miserly" usually implies a certain degree of social isolation, in addition to stinginess -- That old Miser Madison didn't have any friends (to use another Music Man reference). – Hot Licks Nov 4 '14 at 17:20
  • @HotLicks: That's true of nearly every human utterance. – Robusto Nov 4 '14 at 17:44
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Nearly all of the words can be used interchangeably for the gist of the intended meaning.

However, there's a slight implication difference with regard to whether the intent is to be not generous, or not wanting to spend more than one has to.

A stingy person is likely not to be considered to spend money to do something "nice" or "go along with the crowd" in a purchase (generosity):

He won't contribute to the employee gift exchange? He's really stingy.

A miserly person spends as little money as possible (minimal expenditures):

The miserly old man lives off the road in a house and rarely entertains guests.

A frugal person will likely buy exactly what he needs but not more (exactly or minimally sufficient):

When he goes to the grocery store, he keeps to his grocery list, being frugal to only buy the items on it and only those for which a deal or coupons exist.

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I would suggest (although this is entirely from my own personal idea of these words rather than from any particularly reputable source) that @robusto is correct.

However, while stingy and miserly are both pejorative, they are of different levels. For example, I would only describe someone as miserly if they were actively unkind as a result of their distaste for spending money. For instance, a person running a small business who would rather lose an employee and have to find a new one every year, rather than give the current one a small pay rise.

Stingy, however, I would use only to describe someone who only ever pays for the exact amount they use, or exact amount they've eaten. Or to describe someone who say, has lent you 20p when you're at the shop, and insists on having it back. In this example they aren't being in any way unfair or unkind, but it can be infuriating between friends.

Hope this clarifies the usage with some level of context - although I fear I might have made it more complicated!

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Stingy is when your spouse doesn't buy you the things you want. Frugal is when your spouse doesn't buy the things they want. Miserly is when your spouse doesn't buy the things you both need.

  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U. This is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, and while humorous, your response isn't an "answer" as it it does not usefully address the original post. I encourage you to take the site tour and visit the help center for additional guidance. – choster Nov 4 '14 at 22:07
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    Actually, @choster, this answer, when expanded, would be better than most of the existing answers, and the three sentences there now neatly encapsulate the nuances of the three words better than the more elaborate answers do. I'm upping (to bring it back to zero), and would encourage the user to elaborate upon this answer rather than abandon it. – bye Nov 5 '14 at 1:29
  • @choster I like this answer (it gives clear examples of usage I've been asking for) but I would feel bad if I chose this one over all the others because other people seem to have put a lot more effort into their answers. – alisianoi Nov 18 '14 at 17:47
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Others have already pointed out that "frugal" is basically neutral to perhaps even mildly positive.

At least as I would use them, there's a fairly qualitative difference between "stingy" and "miserly".

Somebody who's stingy might (for example) buy their grandchildren Christmas presents, but the children might not want it because it's just not much of a present. By contrast, somebody who's a miser probably wouldn't buy them a Christmas present at all.

I think there's also a connotation about their attitude toward other people.

Somebody who's stingy basically wants others to be happy, but has such an aversion to spending that it prevents them from doing so, at least if money is involved.

A miser is much less likely to care about others' happiness and might easily prefer that others be unhappy.

In short, somebody who's stingy basically wants to be a decent person, but their aversion to spending prevents them from doing so. A miser has such an aversion to spending that they no longer really even care about being (what most people would think of as) a decent person.

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S. I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word (1968), makes this distinction between stingy and miserly:

Stingy emphasizes a lack of generosity, especially the reluctance to spend money. [Example omitted.] Miserly refers more to the hoarding of money or property than either the gluttonous consumption or the stingy use of it. [Example omitted.]

James C. Fernald, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms & Prepositions (1947) offers this discussion under the general heading "Miserly":

Miserly and niggardly persons seek to gain by mean and petty savings; the miserly by stinting themselves,the niggardly by stinting others. ...

The avaricious and rapacious are ready to reach out for gain; the parsimonious, miserly, and niggardly prefer the safe and less adventurous way of avoiding expenditure. Greedy and stingy are used not only of money but often of other things, as food, etc. The greedy child wishes to enjoy everything himself; the stingy child, to keep others from getting it.

and this discussion under the general heading "Frugality":

Frugality is a withholding of expenditure, or sparing of supplies or provision, to a noticeable and often to a painful degree ... Frugality exalted into a virtue to be practiced for its own sake, instead of as a means to an end, becomes the vice of parsimony.

... Miserliness is the denying oneself and others the ordinary comforts or even necessaries of life, for the mere sake of hoarding money.

And Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) has this comment in the entry for "stingy":

Stingy, the ordinary colloquial term, implies mainly a lack of generosity: the term is applicable, therefore, whenever there is a suggestion of a mean or illiberal spirit [examples omitted]. ...Miserly implies penuriousness but it stresses sordid avariciousness as the motive [examples omitted].

and this comment in the entry for "sparing":

Frugal suggests the absence of all luxury and lavishness, especially in food, ways of living, dress, and the like; positively it implies simplicity, temperance, and often, content. [Example omitted.]

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Someone who is frugal tries to make do with less. In cooking, they may leave out or substitute ingredients if they aren't available, or can't be afforded. An example of this is when a recipe calls for saffron which is very expensive so they simply leave it out.

A stingy person has things that others want and choose not to share it. This is typically something which is only temporary. An example of this is when you would call someone stingy for not sharing their candy with their brother or sister.

Someone who is miserly is basically stingy to everyone, including themselves. They are the kind of people who underpay employees just so they can get a bigger bonus. They also will let things deteriorate (run them into the ground) instead of spending money to maintain and repair them even though they have more than enough money to take care of it. You can think of it as a billionaire that lets their teeth rot and fall out because they were too "cheap" to go to a dentist. They will also live in homes and drive vehicles that are well below their means.

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