I wonder what the connotation of 'to impel' is. And whether I use it properly in my application for a research job.

(1) In my motivation letter I write: "After graduating summa cum laude, the fun and thrill of research impelled me to a PhD."
(2) In my research proposal I write: "This is bothering me for a long time, and it should bother others, to the point it impels me to demystify this conundrum of definitions."

After an initial search I judged 'impel' has a dramatic connotation, e.g. "financial difficulties impelled him to desperate measures". But searching further, I found equally many examples where it does not have a dramatic connotation. I know I could reformulate, e.g. 'drove me to a PhD' or 'motivated me to commence a PhD'. However, I like the terseness of the single word 'impel'.

Your thoughts?

  • 4
    The word you are looking for is not impel, but rather compel. Impel implies more of a physical push, rather than an emotional push. Compel is more of an emotional motivator.
    – Karlomanio
    May 9, 2019 at 14:20
  • The examples I have seen do not use 'impel' for a physical push. I believe 'compel' is used when an external person/source forces or urges you to do something, whereas with 'impel' you yourself feel forced or urged to do something. 'compel' may then be better in my first example, but not in the second example.
    – Bart
    May 10, 2019 at 14:34
  • At least from my experience, impel is more of a "physical motivator" than an emotional one. google.com/… (Def 2) shows that it is that. I hardly ever use impel like it is used in your sentence.
    – Karlomanio
    May 10, 2019 at 15:56
  • I looked at your web-link. Def 1: drive, force, or urge (someone) to do something. Def 2: drive forward; propel. Def 2 is given with the example: "vital energies impel him in unforeseen directions". I don't think vital energies physically push him in unforeseen directions.
    – Bart
    May 13, 2019 at 12:58
  • I am not sure what you mean. That is exactly what I am saying.
    – Karlomanio
    May 13, 2019 at 13:33

1 Answer 1


I don't think "impelled me to a PhD" would be correct, since impel means "drive, force, or urge (someone) to do something". So, I would write something along the lines of "impelled me to go for a PhD"

  • 1
    Yes. Impel often takes an infinitive complement. The in- prefix is deictic and directional -- something is pushed into something else, and what it gets pushed into is an action. However, an action noun can serve, as it does in the American declaration of independence: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. I suppose that means a Ph.D. is not an action noun. May 9, 2019 at 14:26
  • @Nick: I think you're right. After looking at examples I found 'impel' often associated with a verb, or an action as John comments.
    – Bart
    May 10, 2019 at 14:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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