I've been just wondering what's the difference between "severe" and "harsh". So in what ways do their nuances/usages differ? For example, when you think a teacher's a little too harsh and that he might be able to soften his comments to the children, do you say he's a little too "harsh" but not "severe", and his comments are a little too "harsh", not "severe"? And are there any alternatives? Thank you in advance!


2 Answers 2


A quote from the MW Dictionary of Synonyms (without examples here):

"Severe is applicable to persons and their looks, acts, thoughts, and utterances or to things (as laws, penalties, judgments, and styles) for which persons are responsible. In all these applications it implies rigorous standards of what is just, right, ethical, beautiful, or acceptable and unsparing or exacting adherence to them; it not only excludes every hint of laxity or indulgence but often suggests a preference for what is hard, plain, or meager (a severe teacher). Very often the word suggests harshness or even cruelty (severe criticism)."

"Harsh suggests a nature that is unfeeling, cruel, and indifferent to the pain it inflicts (a harsh critic) or when applied to things, effectiveness in promoting discomforts or in imposing rigors (a harsh rebuke)."

Compare the following examples (taken from different sources):

The country has come under severe criticism for its human rights record. [strong, neither bad not good]

Many people feel the punishment should have been more severe.

It may seem harsh to punish him, but he has to learn that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

He later regretted his harsh words. [negative]

He accused her of being unduly harsh. [negative]

Nothing can justify such harsh treatment of prisoners. [negative]

  • 1
    +1, harsh means negative, severe means extreme by some implied standard. "harsh words" does not need an implied standard, "severe words" almost certainly will sound weird.
    – user36720
    Aug 31, 2014 at 2:24

My dictionary lists "harsh" as one definition of severe, and "severe" as one definition of harsh, which might suggest the words can often be used interchangably.

That said, in the context you mention, the best thing to do is consult a dictionary, and see which one seems to fit better:

1 unpleasantly rough or jarring to the senses : drenched in a harsh white neon light | harsh guttural shouts.
2 cruel or severe : a time of harsh military discipline.

1 (of something bad or undesirable) very great; intense : a severe shortage of technicians | a severe attack of asthma | damage is not too severe. • demanding great ability, skill, or resilience : a severe test of stamina.
2 strict or harsh : the charges would have warranted a severe sentence | he is unusually severe on what he regards as tendentious pseudo-learning.

Looking at those two entries, I'd suggest harsh is the better fit.

As for "alternatives," that's what thesauri are for.

  • Which dictionary were your entries from?
    – JLG
    Jun 7, 2012 at 6:39
  • @JLG (and to anyone else who was curious) - NOAD
    – J.R.
    Jun 7, 2012 at 8:53
  • Thanks. One of my dictionaries gives "harsh punishment" "harsh criticism" "harsh voice" "He is too harsh with the children" "a harsh judge", and "a harsh military discipline" is in your post, while my other dictionaries list "severe punishment" "severe criticism" "severe voice" "He is severe with his children" "a severe judge" and "the severe discipline of the marines"... so do you think "severe" and "harsh" can be used interchangeably here, or does any of these examples sound weird and unnatural to you? TIA.
    – user21159
    Jun 14, 2012 at 13:40
  • @Chocolate: I think you just answered your own question. (If the dictionaries use the words interchangeably, then we should expect many contexts where the words can be used interchangeably.)
    – J.R.
    Jun 14, 2012 at 14:07

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