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I am confused between pliable and pliant. What's the difference? The explanation in the Oxford Dictionary seems vague:

pliable
        1. easily bent; flexible
            [quality leather is pliable and will not crack]
        2. easily influenced
            [pliable teenage minds]

pliant
        1. easily bent
            [pliant willow stems]
        2. easily influenced or directed; yielding
            [a more pliant prime minister]
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There isn't a difference in meaning; they're synonyms. They are also interchangeable as regards usage; wherever one fits, the other would too. Pliable is more common, though:

  • a powerful tool , Google ngram is ;-P – daisy Oct 10 '11 at 0:37
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    You can't always trust NGram to make or back up a case, but my own gut feeling is pliable is more likely to be used in its literal sense, and pliant more in the metaphorical sense. The higher prevalence of pliable disappears with pliant/pliable mind/disposition – FumbleFingers Oct 10 '11 at 0:54
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Pliable usually refers to a material flexing in response to an external force, while "plaint" can ALSO refer, allegorically, to other things (such as a personality) that exhibits flexibility in response to an external force.

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My understanding is, that "Pliant" refers to an object which can be bent - like a flexible branch or plastic rod. "Pliable" refer to a material that is easily shaped into a specific form, such as clay or leather.

Could be wrong of course. Both words seem to be used casually and interchangeable, so I doubt anyone would correct you, for using "pliable" instead of "pliant" or vice versa.

Both terms also seem to refer to the metaphorical sense of the word, where a person has a "pliable" or "pliant" personality, meaning they can easily be bent or shaped to another person's will.

I am no expert, so I may be wrong. I can't find any good explanations of when to use which term either.

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These words seem so similar because they both entered the language from the same root word, but they entered at different times. (source: dictionary.com)

Pliant came into Middle English from Old French between 1300-1350. At that time the modern word "ply" also came into the language as "plien" (from the Old French word "pleier"). The present participle form of "plien" was apparently "pliant" which was the root "plien/ply" + the Latin suffix "-ant" meaning “characterized by or serving in the capacity of”.

Then, with pliant already in the language as the present participle form of plien(ply), pliable separately came into late Middle English from modern French between 1425-1475. Modern French used "plier" (and that change in the French word apparently eventually helped change "plien" in Middle English to the modern "ply"). From the French "pli(er) + the Latin suffix "-able" meaning “capable of, susceptible of, fit for, tending to, given to,” came the adjective "pliable".

As the language moved into modern English, the present participle of ply became plying but it seems the old Middle English present participle form pliant was popular enough that it survived by becoming an adjective, just like pliable. Thus both words are fundamentally the same, both adjectives of the same root word ply and with Latin suffixes that are so close that there is no fundamental difference. And since modern English they have basically been used almost interchangeably.

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Pliable suggests there may be consequences to being the object of plying.

"They are pliable, eager for the sweet release of death."

Pliant has a gentler connotation.

"They are pliant, eager for a bribe."

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    Perhaps you should add some explanation to your examples, maybe? – KillingTime Jul 27 '19 at 6:57
  • I will be com-pliant. – Christopher Coffee Jul 27 '19 at 15:15
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Just do not forget that pliant also means "being able and willing to accept change or new ideas".

Pliable — substances that can bend easily or person that is easily influenced
Pliantable to be bent easily or able to be influenced easily

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    This explanation makes no sense to me. This is like saying that a car can move, while an automobile is able to move. If something can bend, it is also able to be bent. Likewise, someone who is easily influenced is, per definition, someone who is able to be easily influenced. And indeed various dictionaries define pliant as pliable, or vice versa. – RegDwigнt Aug 18 '12 at 10:44
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    I guess you will need to add some more details to justify this as an answer. The answer as is doesn't deal with OP's concern. – Noah Sep 17 '12 at 9:29

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