My professor has asked us to give a substantive presentation in order to complete a course. I needed to look up the dictionary as this was a new word for me. Dictionaries do not point to a clear difference between substantive and substantial. How do these words differ in terms of the usage? Their etymology is the same, so this is a matter of usage, I guess.

  • This is a loved word by lawyers and accountants.
    – Pacerier
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


Beyond the dictionary definitions, something that is


must have some substance to it, must not be trivial, must be meaningful. It is probably not simply pithy (on the short side), but still needs some support.

Something that is


needs bulk to it (in comparison).

That is, in quantity, 'substantial' is more than 'substantive', but substantive is not brief.

Another way to say this is that 'substantial' is a lot, and substantive has been filled out.

  • 3
    Yeah. If I was assigned to write a "substantial report", I'd take that to mean it must be long and weigh a lot. But a "substantive report" would mean that it must say something of value, it can't just be something I threw together in half an hour.
    – Jay
    Mar 26, 2012 at 16:17
  • @Jay: yes, and a "substantive" report is probably not short either.
    – Mitch
    Mar 26, 2012 at 16:50

I think there's an emerging difference in usage. By dictionary definitions, both words have a range of meanings, with considerable overlap.

Google's first three entries for substantial cover most usages today 1: Of considerable importance, size, or worth. 2: Strongly built or made. 3: (of a meal) Large and filling.

Their first two entries for substantive are 1: Having a firm basis in reality and therefore important, meaningful, or considerable. 2: Having a separate and independent existence.

Here's a chart showing how substantive has crept up in recent decades.

enter image description here

I'll just throw in an OED definition for substantiate - To demonstrate or verify by proof or evidence. I believe that increasingly, substantive is used to mean capable of being substantiated.

TL;DR: Substantial today tends to refer to physical attributes; substantive is less common overall, and is more likely to be used metaphorically (of abstract concepts).

  • I think your NGram is altogether misleading. The comparison assumes that the instances are considered synonyms. But I don't think you can do that. Compare purple and orange. They cross-over too in the late 30's. So is orange more popular than purple as synonyms for some color? Obviously not. It's irrelevant if 'substantive point' has more instances now than 'substantial point'.
    – Mitch
    Mar 26, 2012 at 17:01
  • @Mitch: I don't understand. Purple and orange are just two isolated words, and that almost imperceptible "crossover" disappears if you precede of follow them with a disambiguating "colour" or "color". Do you really think any significant proportion of either of my two charted collocations are for some unrelated meaning? That seems unlikely to me, though I will admit I didn't even check a few pages to make sure. Mar 26, 2012 at 17:09
  • (the rest of your answer is perfectly fine) The NGram picture is misleading because it looks like you are trying to compare exact synonyms when you're not. You're just comparing the instances of two strings. How is the relative frequency relevant here unless you expect them to be exact synonyms?
    – Mitch
    Mar 26, 2012 at 17:15
  • @Mitch: I still don't get you. By definition, physical points are rarely going to be substantial / substantive - in a pure geometry context, they have no size at all! I'd expect nearly all my charted usages to be about points of argument for both adjectives. To repeat my question - what alternative context are you thinking of that might be skewing the figures? Mar 26, 2012 at 17:27
  • should we move this over to chat?
    – Mitch
    Mar 26, 2012 at 19:24

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