I understand that for common usage these words have distinct meanings. However in mathematics there is a process called convolution, and sometimes you hear "you need to convolve X" and sometimes "you need to convolute X". Similarly with related terms e.g. "to deconvolute the data" and "to deconvolve the data".

From a bit of Google snooping I get the feeling that they are simply interchangeable, much like oriented/orientated. (Although the spellchecker flags "deconvolute" but not "deconvolve" in the above paragraph). Indeed, searching "convolve" in Wikipedia redirects you to the Convolution article I linked above.

Are these words interchangeable? If so, is there so regional difference between their usage? I am compelled to snobbishly adhere to British English, after all.

EDIT: The answer of user545424 doesn't convince me. For instance, there's an incomplete debate amongst engineers here with one saying that convolute is more common, and others mentioning that convolve doesn't even appear in dictionaries. A Google Ngrams search also suggests that convolute is more prevalent, despite a decline in that and a rise in convolve. However, these last two cases are inconclusive because of the split between the common context of these words and the mathematical procedure named as such, where I'm only interested in the latter.

Does anyone else care to present an argument backed up with sources?

  • 1
    I detest 'orientated' The proper word is 'oriented.' Something that has been oriented has an orientation. And it appears that somebody (or lots of somebodies), having heard 'orientation', then tried to back out a verb and came up with 'orientate'.
    – Jim
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 7:45
  • @Jim Neither is universally proper. Both are in dictionaries and both are accepted; but to varying degrees in different countries. I wanted to know if the same situation existed for convolve/convoluted.That "orientate" probably came about as a back-formation from "orientation" is irrelevant.
    – Verge
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 5:06
  • 3
    I still detest it.
    – Jim
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 6:00
  • For common usage, I wouldn’t say the two verbs have distinct meanings as such; rather, one has virtually no meaning. Being an avid avoider of all things mathematical, I have never in my life heard or seen anyone use the verb convolve. Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 22:46
  • I would guess that convolute is used by people unfamiliar with the verb convolve, or unaware of its relation to convolution; and that such people may be the majority in some disciplines, so those disciplines would settle on convolute. Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 5:14

5 Answers 5


The mathematical procedure is called convolution or deconvolution, and you convolve or deconvolve two functions; you do not convolute or deconvolute two functions.

Outside of math convolve and convolute mean pretty much the same thing:

to coil up; form into a twisted shape.

Although deconvolute and deconvolve are not in the dictionary, I imagine you could use them colloquially as a verb to mean:

to uncoil

  • 1
    +1 -- but please, readers, do not use deconvolve except in a technical context! At best it is needlessly complex; at worst, obfuscatory.
    – Charles
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 14:31
  • 4
    at worst, it is convoluted.
    – user545424
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 17:08
  • @user545424 Can you please back up your first sentence? Also, see my edit.
    – Verge
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 5:21
  • @Verge, from the NOAD, convolute is a biology term meaning, "rolled longitudinally upon itself, as a leaf in the bud," while convolve is a rare word carrying the primary meaning, to "roll or coil together; entwine," and the secondary meaning in mathematics "combine (one function or series) with another by forming their convolution." Also search for convolute and convolve on the Wikipedia page—it never uses convolute as a verb.
    – zpletan
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 11:37
  • Online links: convolve—oxforddictionaries.com/definition/convolve convolute—oxforddictionaries.com/definition/convoluted
    – zpletan
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 11:38

I work in a physics lab, and when I hear someone say that the array or signal or what have you is "convoluted", I think of the array as being complex with a multitude of subtle, confusing arguments, which is of course kind of silly. I prefer to say that the array is "convolved" in order to avoid any confusion. My Oxford English Dictionary includes a mathematical definition for the word "convolve" but not for "convolute". Interestingly, both entries contain the English definition of rolling/coiling. Also, my boss, who has been in this field much longer than I, always uses "convolute". I still think "convolve" is better.

... but then I wonder, should the noun conjugation of "convolve" be "convolvement"???


Setting aside the fact that "convolve" is the usual mathematical term defined for this process, there is something else that tips the scales clearly in favor of "convolve" over "convolute":

Convoluted is an adjective.

Convolved is a verb (both transitive and intransitive).

As such, while you might say that "signal A is convolved with signal B", to say that "signal A is convoluted with signal B" would be butchery of the English language. (And using convoluted as an adjective isn't terribly useful, unless you wanted to complain about the convoluted process.) So convolve and its associated forms appear to fit the process of convolution, and signal processing and math in general, better.

  • 1
    Actually, convoluted is a verb to: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/convolute. Personally, I still prefer to use convolve and its derivatives.
    – texnic
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 10:39
  • Look again. convoluted is an adjective according to your source. You posted convolute, which is a verb. Commented Dec 12, 2016 at 8:50
  • @codehead Neither convolved nor convoluted is an adjective in the example sentence you give; they are both past participles forming part of a passive construction; and as past participles generally, they can both be used adjectivally. The dichotomy you’re trying to establish here is nonexistent. What is true is that there is also a true adjective convoluted, which is far more common than either verb, but that’s somewhat beside the point here. Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 22:43
  • @janus I didn't make such a claim (adjective) for the examples. But I'm not an English major, just winging it it there, my expertise is in digital signal processing. I'm happy to take advice on possibly rewording some details in my answer. Some people do talk about "convoluting" two signal (often unsure of their wording), but Wolfram and many other math sources are clear that it would be "convolving". Also, if someone speaks of a signal that has been "convoluted", we might be uncertain of what they mean (convolution involved, or just mixed up?). But with "convolved", the meaning is clear. Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 5:55

Thanks for raising this question. It's a pity it hasn't attracted enough attention. Probably, it's the usual situation that technically minded people do not care about the form as much as they should.

Personally, I always use convolve and convolved and tend to correct people using convolute or convoluted. I work in an international environment and I have noticed that usually people who speak better English tend to use convolve. Mathematica calls its function convolve and Matlab documentation reads:

conv(u,v) convolves vectors u and v.

That said, I cannot find any linguistic reference, that's how I landed on this page.


I typed the following word pairs, and spell-check balks at "convolve."

evolve --> evolution;

devolve --> devolution;

revolve --> revolution;

convolve --> convolution;

Nonetheless, in my experience, for the mathematical operation of combining two functions, "convolve" is preferred.

I found the following web site, which (of course) includes the first three -volve words, but not "convolve": http://wordinfo.info/unit/2323/s:advolution

Living language isn't logical, and we are constantly back-forming words that become standard. As for me, I will continue to use "convolve."

  • I don't understand the point of mentioning that your spell-checker has such a limited dictionary that it doesn't include convolve. While it's nice that you've shared your preference for convolve with us, that isn't exactly definitive. The NGram for convolve_VERB,convolute_VERB for the AmE corpus since 1950 suggests that convolve didn't get more popular than convolute until the early 1970s, so I don't get what you mean by back-forming either.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 16:10
  • Twenty-eight matching dictionaries: onelook.com/?w=convolve&ls=a
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 17:11
  • OED says that "convolve" has its origins in late 16th century (oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/convolve) , but I'm trying to imagine which mathematicians would have been writing in English in the late 16th century! I just stumbled onto this forum because I was editing a technical paper. I saw that it is for "English language enthusiasts." Sorry about my lame spell checker.
    – K Brubaker
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 17:41
  • In my opinion, this contribution is a very promising first effort. Thanks for your interest in English Language & Usage, K Brubaker, and for sharing the website listing of terms related to convolve that you found. I hope you won't be discouraged from visiting again by the somewhat brusque responses that your answer drew.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 18:35

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