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Is there an intended difference between the words "eloquent" and "articulate," or are they simply two synonymous adjectives?

When I use the adjective "eloquent" I most often think of flowery, decorated, or crafted speaking. The individual puts effort into making their speaking more colorful or artistic. Whether they do this consciously or unconsciously is not relevant for my usage.

However, when I use the adjective "articulate" I think of someone who simply has a strong understanding and usage of a language. They are clear and easy to understand. Their words are proper and correct, but not necessarily the most flowing or "fun" to read or listen to.

So one can be articulate but not eloquent, in my opinion. I suppose that one can also be eloquent but not truly articulate, but I feel this is very rare for having the ability to craft a sentence for a certain effect more-or-less requires a fairly strong grasp of the intended language.

Is this particular variance in usage a common thing among English speakers, or am I just weird?

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    Eloquent to me isn't about flowery speech. Rather about someone who can cut through and express the heart of the issue with force and clarity, and appropriate to the audience. Which is not the same as being generally articulate, although they tend to go hand in hand most of the time – Michael Broughton Nov 17 '15 at 16:57
  • What did the dictionary tell you? The meanings are quite distinct. – Drew Nov 17 '15 at 19:09
  • @Drew - According to just a general Google search, looking it up in Merriam-Webster, and vocabulary.com, they both share a very nearly identical definition. At least for their adjective forms. Eloquent: -Google - fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing -M-W - having or showing the ability to use language clearly and effectively -Vocab.com - expressing yourself readily, clearly, effectively Articulate: -Google - having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently -M-W - able to express ideas clearly and effectively in speech or writing -Vocab.com - express or state clearly – Zach W Nov 17 '15 at 20:00
  • Even those you quote are quite different. showing the ability to use language clearly and effectively vs showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently. Articulation is about verbal expression, and especially pronunciation. Eloquence can be as much about what you say as how, and it need not be aloud. – Drew Nov 17 '15 at 20:19
  • @Drew, I see what you are saying but both words have definitions that mention both writing and speaking. Eloquent - Google - fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing and Articulate - M-W - able to express ideas clearly and effectively in speech or writing. – Zach W Nov 17 '15 at 20:26
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I think your understanding is definitely on the right track. In my view, "eloquent" is stronger and even more favorable connotatively than "articulate." Eloquent almost implies a talent at "elocution," the practice of oration or formal discourse, i.e., speaking well or convincingly in the manner of e.g. Cicero. Articulate implies the ability to elucidate one's thoughts clearly and succinctly but doesn't imply as much of a natural talent at speaking or persuading as "eloquent."

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According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984), both articulate (as an adjective) and eloquent belong to two distinct groups of synonyms—one group that the other word also appears in, and one group (each) that the other does not appear in. This helps explain why, when understood in their non-overlapping senses, the two words seem quite different, whereas, when viewed in their shared sense, they have a lot in common.

The sense of articulate that is not closely related to eloquent is the one that makes it a synonym of oral and vocal because, according to Merriam-Webster, they "can all mean uttered by voice or having to do with utterance." The dictionary says this about this sense of articulate:

Articulate implies the use of distinct, intelligible language; thus, speech is the uttering of articulate sounds; articulate cries are those that are expressed in meaningful words rather than in meaningless sounds[.]

The sense of eloquent that is not closely related to articulate is the one that makes it a synonym of expressive, significant, meaningful, pregnant, and sententious—words that, MW says "mean clearly conveying or manifesting a thought, idea, or feeling or a combination of these." With regard to eloquent in this sense, the dictionary offers this commentary:

Something is eloquent ... which reveals with great or impressive force one's thoughts, ideas, or feelings ... or which gives a definite and clear suggestion of a condition, situation or character[.] ... Eloquent is also applicable to words, style, and speech when a power to arouse deep feeling or to evoke images or ideas charged with emotion is implied[.]

But the Dictionary of Synonyms also bundles articulate and eloquent together in a group that includes voluble, vocal, fluent, and glib. Here are the relevant parts of that entry in the dictionary:

Vocal, articulate, fluent, eloquent, voluble, glib can men being able to express oneself clearly or easily, or showing such ability. ... Articulate is as often applied to thoughts and emotions with reference to their capacity for expression as to persons or their utterances. It implies the use of language which exactly and distinctly reveals or conveys what seeks expression[.] ... Eloquent usually implies fluency but it suggests also the stimulus of powerful emotion and its expression in fervent and moving language; it is applicable not only to speakers but to writers and cab be extended to things that convey similar suggestions[.]

In their overlapping sense related to "clear or easy expression," then, articulate and eloquent differ primarily in their emphasis—articulate emphasizing accuracy in representing or conveying an underlying thought or feeling, and eloquent emphasizing the feeling of the speaker or writer as well as his or her effectiveness in conjuring or evoking a desired response in the hearer or reader.

Articulate thus tens to apply to highly effective precision in expression, as in a finely wrought chain of well-chosen words, and eloquent to passionate inspiration, as in an irresistible flood of moving words. This seems to be the view of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, anyway.

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To me, "eloquence" in speech is about lucidity and smoothness of speech, while "articulation" is about forcefulness of speech. As one articulates during speech (that is, one moves the limbs), the words of mouth get supplemented with the moves and the speech becomes forceful and more effective. This is precisely what is called "an articulated speech". However, "eloquence" of speech is only about clarity, lucidity and smoothness of speech. The only way how "eloquence" and "articulation" seem similar is that both of them are normally found in a good speaker.

Let me further explain: English is a rich language. It has a wide vocabulary. One, who has a good vocabulary, could be eloquent speaker. Now, let us suppose Hindi is not such a rich language. Therefore, it is possible that one expressing oneself in Hindi could not achieve the eloquence that one expressing oneself in English could achieve. But, this is not true with "articulation". One, in both situations, could be equally articulative.

Tell me if I am correct.

  • I like your explanation, but there are two distinct definitions of this word. In your use case, using the word as a means to describe the method of emphasis a person uses is absolutely correct. He or she can articulate while they speak to enhance their words. However, the word can also mean being able to assemble (join) words together in a skilled fashion. In that case, I feel "articulate" and "eloquent" are a little more similar. I fear I probably wasn't specific enough about which version of the word I was referring to. My mistake :) – Zach W Dec 22 '15 at 13:32
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Eloquent refers to a particular instance(s) whereas 'articulate' is an ongoing condition. An articulate person can be eloquent at times, but not necessarily always. Eg, an enthusiast may an speak competently on their preferred subject but still lack eloquence - they may be extremely flat, boring, or unconvincing. Even when we say that somebody has been eloquent in a series of debates, we don't preclude the possibility that they could bore for England on the wrong subject. Eloquent also applies to actions ('an eloquent gesture'), which is not true of 'articulate', unless you are a mechanic.

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