What's the difference between "the main reason" and "the chief reason"? I've heard both, but have no idea where exactly these two differ.

  • 1
    I think the difference lies solely with that between 'main' and 'chief'. Do you have reason to believe otherwise?
    – Mitch
    Jul 12, 2012 at 12:25
  • @Mitch - I think the difference between 'main' and 'chief' is way bigger than the difference between 'the main reason' and 'the chief reason'. For example, one of the points of the difference between 'main' and 'chief' would be the fact that the first word ('main') can be used as a part of a term in grammar - 'the main clause', where is the second word ('chief') is never used to form a term in grammar (at least I have never heard such term as 'the chief clause'). This point of difference is not included in the scope of difference between 'the main reason' and 'the chief reason'
    – brilliant
    Jul 12, 2012 at 12:36
  • See Barry's answer then. Summary: mostly the same; minor inconsequential variations in context.
    – Mitch
    Jul 12, 2012 at 12:55
  • brilliant: the fact that these words can be applied in other contexts (e.g., a tribal chief, a main office) does not negate the validity of what @Mitch said. To do a comparison, we must extract only the parts of the dictionary definitions which apply to this context. NOAD says chief means "most important", and main means "chief in importance." Hence, you're right, the differences between these two words expand beyond this context – but Mitch is also right: dictionary definitions plainly show that the two can be used interchangably when talking about the most significant reason.
    – J.R.
    Jul 13, 2012 at 9:41
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    @brilliant: for the specific question about main/chief/reason, you've gotten the answer multiple times: there is little difference (for this set of words, in the context you specify in the OP, in English). For the general question, you are correct that context matters; synonyms can't always replace others in idioms (and you've given examples like 'yellow'). Back to the specific question, there's nothing really special about main and chief and reason, but 'main' and 'chief' ill appear in different idioms (that's somewhat self-defining of 'idiom').
    – Mitch
    Jul 13, 2012 at 12:59

1 Answer 1


Why stop with two? You can also speak of the prime reason, the central reason, the primary reason, the principle reason, the foremost reason, the predominant reason and the pre-eminent reason. Like main and chief, they have much the same meaning, but are likely to be found in different contexts. Only a corpus search can reveal what those contexts might be.

  • What is a corpus search?
    – brilliant
    Jul 12, 2012 at 6:21
  • @brilliant- corpus search is a search where you search written documents, books, etc. Google Books is one example of corpus search.
    – Noah
    Jul 12, 2012 at 6:33
  • @brilliant: A corpus is a large collection of text stored electronically. It allows an analyst to examine the contexts in which a word is used. Jul 12, 2012 at 6:34

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