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Dictionaries give both dysunction and malfunction the meaning 'failure to function properly'. Are they complete synonyms?

3 Answers 3

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They are not exact synonyms.

Dysfunction is defined as:

any malfunctioning part or element: the dysfunctions of the country's economy.

The adjective of dysfunction is dysfunctional.

Malfunction:

noun
1. failure to function properly: a malfunction of the liver; the malfunction of a rocket.
verb (used without object)
2. to fail to function properly.

The corresponding adjective is malfunctioning.

Per the definitions above, dysfunction (noun) is a malfunctioning constituent, whereas a malfunction (noun) is the failure to function. So you would say the dysfunctions in the launching apparatus caused the malfunction of the launch.

However, dysfunction has another meaning, which I believe is worth a dictionary entry: as Kit notes, general usage shows that dysfunction/dysfunctional usually applies to an ongoing abnormality of the object; it might still work, but it doesn't work as intended. Malfunction, on the other hand, connotes a breakdown of sorts, after which the object ceases to function.

Another difference is that malfunction can be a verb, and dysfunction cannot. This makes sense when considering the following analogy: failure:fail::failing constituent/abnormality:[what?], corresponding to malfunction [noun]:malfunction [verb]::dysfunction:[nothing].

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  • As Kit’s answer shows, they’re not quite synonyms, pace the etymology and some dictionary definitions. Not only are they used in different contexts, but when they overlap, they have slightly different connotations.
    – PLL
    Nov 8, 2011 at 14:00
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It is true that both malfunction and dysfunction have similar meanings, but the prefix mal- means (approximately) bad while the prefix dys- means (approximately) abnormal.

So although drɱ65 δ's links above show that the definitions for malfunction and dysfunction are synonymous, I argue that (despite what Dictionary.com says) dysfunction and malfunction are generally used for different things.

For instance, it sounds exceedingly wrong to me to hear "a malfunction of the liver." It should be "a liver dysfunction." Also, we talk about dysfunctional relationships or families, not malfunctioning ones. So dysfunction is generally applied to organic things, or abstract entities or processes. A dysfunction does not stop something from working, but it does mean that the thing is not working properly. This is a chronic case, happening over a less defined period of time.

"It was caused by a computer dysfunction" also sounds wrong. Usually, we'd say "it was a computer malfunction." As an additional example, wardrobes sometimes malfunction. Malfunction is used for things that are operated on, like mechanical devices. A malfunction is much more like a break; something stops working or fails to work. It is an acute case, happening in a short, defined time span.

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    +1, I searched books to verify your claims and they hold. One exception is that medicine recognizes and uses both malfunction and dysfunction. For example pulmonary malfunction has almost 1M results (pulmonary dysfunction has much more, however I don't believe it is the case of wrong usage)
    – Unreason
    Nov 8, 2011 at 13:51
  • @Unreason Thank you for your research; that's excellent. I think we would find that in medical contexts, the acute/chronic distinction would still hold. Maybe that is why I feel like liver malfunction sounds odd (since I used to handle patients with chronic disease).
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Nov 8, 2011 at 14:11
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Malfunction refers to production of results that are opposite for what is expected or intended i.e. a gun is expected to fire a bullet out from the barrel however the bullet is exiting the case ejection chamber or not exiting at all is said to be malfunctioning

Dysfunction refers to production of results that are intented but poor quality or near expectations, i.e. a gun is expected to fire a bullet out from the barrel and hit the mark from a certain distance however the bullet is off mark even in close range is said to be dysfunctional.

Disfunction refers to absence of function or results at all or sometimes called non-functional, i.e the bullet doesnt come out of the gun when trigger is pulled even when the barrel is clear and the hammer is hitting the casing.

Note: These are the term senses I used when writing technical reports in my work as a process engineer, thus profess that its not authoritative.

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