What is the difference between ambition and aspiration?

I found this question in the schoolbook and cannot figure out why the only possible answer is aspirations.

Do you agree that children having ________ to become rich and famous is a negative thing?

Why can't ambitions work as an answer?

  • Good question, but you might have to ask whoever wrote it.
    – tchrist
    Nov 5, 2017 at 20:42
  • I'm with tchrist. In ordinary English, ambitions would work just as well, as any dictionary should have told your inquisitor. Nov 5, 2017 at 20:45
  • I think ambitions can work as an answer. I'm trying to understand how it could be rejected and so I'm presenting the following not because I believe it, but because it offers a possible explanation. "They have ambitions" sounds a little odd to my ear. "They have ambition" sounds more normal. However an ambition to become rich and an ambition to become famous are two ambitions. So on the one hand grammatically "ambitions" is correct but on the other it sounds odd and therefore it was rejected?? It's a stretch but it might explain their point of view.
    – Al Maki
    Nov 5, 2017 at 20:55
  • The title says "ambition vs aspiration," but later you use the words "ambitions" and "aspirations." Can you clarify whether the question is between "ambitions" vs. "aspirations" or "ambition" vs. "aspiration," to help address the points brought up by Al Maki above? Nov 5, 2017 at 22:25

1 Answer 1


The best quote I can find which demonstrates the difference between the two words is :

1866 W. R. Alger Solitudes Nat. & Man iii. 120 Aspiration is a pure upward desire for excellence, without side-references; ambition is an inflamed desire to surpass others.. . . OED-3

The above quote is from the OED entry for 'ambition' which defines it as :

The ardent (in early usage, inordinate) desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, influence, distinction or other preferment.

Whereas the OED makes clear that 'aspiration' originally comes from the the concept of breathing, aspiring and so an 'aspiration' is not a matter of striving for a place above others or to gain more than one has, it is the breathings of a human after something with purpose, for its own sake :

The action of aspiring; steadfast desire or longing for something above one.. . OED-3

1866 W. R. Alger Solitudes Nature & Man iii. 120 Aspiration is a pure upward desire for excellence.

I have an ambition to gain reputation points on EL&U.

But I also have an aspiration to be genuinely competent in English, that I may, effectively, communicate with my fellow humans.

There is nothing wrong with either as long as they are in harmony, I would say.

If not, I become an unbalanced human being.

  • I don't have a subscription to the OED, but I suspect the usage you're referring to is different from the one the OP describes. Having ambitions of becoming a firefighter or doctor, for example, isn't typically considered to have a connotation of competition.
    – Lawrence
    Nov 6, 2017 at 2:51
  • @Lawrence Well, is that not an 'aspiration' ? The ambition would be to be the best doctor, would it not ?
    – Nigel J
    Nov 6, 2017 at 2:52
  • Well, it could be called an aspiration, a dream or even a desire. But it's also common to ask about ambitions without reference to competition - see, for example, this, about answering an interview question: "What's your ambition in life?".
    – Lawrence
    Nov 6, 2017 at 2:59
  • @Lawrence Indeed, and that is the fine line I am trying to define - the balance of aspiration and ambition.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 6, 2017 at 3:02
  • I think ambition straddles the line - the context determines whether competition is implied or is irrelevant.
    – Lawrence
    Nov 6, 2017 at 3:03

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