I was asked what the difference between need and necessity was by a non native speaker. It was in the context of the name of an article to do with global warming, i.e "The need/necessity for....". I was completely stumped and googling it only produced speculative answers.

In my mind a necessity is an absolute requirement, for example food and water is a necessity for survival. I would have said that a need is a requirement but maybe not an absolute one. For example, there is a need for an umbrella when walking outside in the rain.

Could you please give a definitive answer, if there is one?

EDIT - Attempting to address Edwin Ashworth's need for signs of research.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines need and necessity as follows

Need - Necessity, requirement.

Necessity - Constraint or determination by some external force; an instance of this.

In Fleischer's 1804 book "English Synonymous Or the Difference Between Words Esteemed Synonymous in the English Language: Useful to All who Would Either Write and Speak with Propriety and Elegance", need and necessity are given by

Need and necessity relates less to the situation of life than the other three words [in the context of poverty, indigence and want]; but more to the relief we expect or the remedy we seek, with this difference between the two that need seems less pressing than necessity.

although this is both contextual and dated. I am struggling to find other reliable sources, hence my post on this website.

  • 1
    Food is a necessity for survival. I need food to survive. I don't see much of a difference between these two other than the fact that they are not always interchangeable within a given sentence. – NVZ Jun 27 '17 at 15:52
  • 1
    @NVZ Do you think that an umbrella is a necessity when walking outside in the rain? I would have thought that it was a need, but not a necessity, as you are able to walk outside in the rain without an umbrella. Does this make sense or is it a circular argument? In which case I guess I am arguing that needs are subsets of necessities which would address your first comment..... – 1QuickQuestion Jun 27 '17 at 15:56
  • 1
    The umbrella is not a need. The complication is that definitions are allowed to broaden ('An Acme umbrella is a must!') / You need to show signs of research you yourself have done. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 '17 at 16:23
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth 'You need to show signs of research' - is that a necessity? – peerless Jun 27 '17 at 17:10
  • 1
    @1QuickQuestion You don't need an umbrella to walk outside in the rain. You need legs and an able body. You need an umbrella to prevent yourself from getting wet, and in that case an umbrella is a necessity. – NVZ Jun 27 '17 at 17:49

Need has one syllable, necessity has four.

So, if both work, use need.

Otherwise choice depends to a large extent on one’s experience of usage, which defies consistent logical explanation. Examples (with hints at explanations in parentheses) include:

“It’s an absolute necessity” (emphatic)

“Necessity is the mother of invention” (conceptual)

“My needs are few, my wants are endless” (didactic simplicity)

“Basic necessities” (stock phrase)

“God shall supply all your need” (biblical)

After twenty years or so, you’ll get the hang of it.

| improve this answer | |

This answer is not intended to be definitive, and I have not found supporting evidence, however as a reasonably good English speaker, I think it's a subject/object thing:

I need you to survive. You are a necessity for my survival.

My car need needs fuel. Fuel is a necessity for my car.

| improve this answer | |
  • I didn’t downvote, but something can “fill a need”. Nevertheless, you might be on to something if you can tease out the nuances and exceptions. – Lawrence May 6 at 2:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.