I know the basic similarities between adjust and adapt, but I would like to know more about the differences between them. For example, which of the following sentences would be true?

It took time to adjust myself to fatherhood.


It took time to adapt myself to fatherhood.

3 Answers 3


adapt: to make fit (as for a new use) often by modification

adjust: to bring to a more satisfactory state

The subtle difference here is that adjustment involves making changes within the original design parameters of the item being adjusted. You can adjust the volume of your radio. You can adjust the position of your chair.

Adaptation involves modifying an item for a new purpose- one that was not originally anticipated in the item's design.

  • So which of above mentioned statements is true? Commented May 12, 2012 at 15:58
  • Given that people were designed to be parents, I think you had to adjust to parenthood. But depending on how you led your life prior to becoming a parent you may have needed to adapt your lifestyle.
    – Jim
    Commented May 12, 2012 at 18:29

It really depends on context, and there is no fixed rule for deciding when to use what. Personally, I think of "adjust" as implying a smaller change than "adapt", which generally implies a realignment of goals. Parents of two children who are now expecting their third child would need to adjust to the demands of a new baby. Even a newlywed couple could adjust to parenthood, if they had been appropriately prepared for it. On the other hand, a previously sworn lifelong bachelor, who got married by chance and is now expecting to be a father, must adapt to fatherhood, because his goals and aspirations were aligned in a completely different direction before.

So depending on what kind of situation you're trying to convey, you'll have to choose the appropriate word based on context. Even so, it's unlikely that your intended nuance of meaning will be clear simply on the basis of your word choice -- you'll probably have to explain the context alongside.


Grammatically adjust is primarily a transitive verb and here you are adjusting yourself, or some properties of your personality, lifestyle etc. as an understood object. Semantically adjust is a conscious activity you are actively performing, you recognize you are having to work to adjust to fatherhood, so adjust is appropriate.

Conversely adapt is primarily an intransitive or reflexive verb and something is adapting itself, naturally, without external or deliberate intervention. This is part of a more general biological and behavioural usage where organisms adapt to their environments, but we are not focussed on conscious or agentive process, again appropriate to you to the extent it was a natural and automatic process especially if you only realised afterward how significant the changes were. But the use of the word myself in your sentence belies this and the sentence would be more appropriate if the word was omitted.

So adjust is used for a short-term manual action giving rise to a reversible change while adapt is used for a long-term automatic process giving rise to a potentially permanent change. Adjustment doesn't tend to change the intrinsic nature of something, while adaptation implies that its nature and purpose have changed.

  • This answer was useful to me to understand, why is adaptive optics (in astronomical telescopes) called adaptive and not e.g. adjusting. Because it works without external intervention. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 8:59

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