What is the difference between feeling and sensing? They are synonyms but for me they sound like the same thing.

I've read somewhere that feeling is more about emotions (sadness, happiness, love), and sensing is "touch or a sensation in the body" (such as seeing, hearing). This answer could be logical but I'm not really sure.

So it would be really good to know the actual differences.

  • 2
    There are a number of online dictionaries you could check out -- why not look there first, then refine your question?
    – JAM
    Aug 12 '12 at 13:55
  • However, adding to Fumble's answer, you can feel the body movements and sensations that you would sense if you were interanlised, and this is the only way for understanding the difference! Aug 12 '12 at 15:45
  • @JAM: To be fair, I don't think any dictionary would specifically address the supposed distinction being advanced by OP (and apparently endorsed by Xavier) - I'd expect them to just point out that both words can be used metaphorically in the sense of think, consider. Aug 12 '12 at 16:19

More often than not, these days when people say "I sense..." it refers to their powers of induction or a metaphysical "sixth" sense. When people say "I feel...", it usually refers to emotions or physical stimuli. That is a generalization of most common usage though.

  • One must be careful not to "overanalyse" a distinction that doesn't really exist to the extent that non-native speakers should bother learning it, but I feel/sense/suspect/think there is some truth to that powers of induction/sixth sense connotation for sense. In practice though, sense is far less common in all such contexts, and probably the only net effect is that when it is used, it's slightly more likely to convey hesitant/deferential/circumlocutory overtones (where the speaker may not wish to be drawn on how he senses whatever he's talking about). Aug 12 '12 at 16:30

There's only a very fine nuance separating to feel and to sense in most contexts, and it doesn't fundamentally involve OP's distinction between emotions and physical sensations. Often, they're both just metaphoric substitutes for think. To take a specific example, with...

"I feel you're not listening to me"

"I sense you're not listening to me"

...the first version does indeed place more emphasis on the speaker's emotional reaction to the situation, where the second highlights the fact that the speaker has detected he's not being "heard".

On the other hand, with...

"I feel that was a mistake"

...it's unlikely anyone would interpret the utterance any differently if the verb were to be replaced with sense (or indeed, think).

But it's worth noting that feel can be used in a broader range of contexts. For example, the speaker in my first example could say "I feel ignored", but not *"I sense ignored".


Feel, hear, see, smell, and taste are Sense Verbs. They refer to the actual, physical, physiological senses of touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste (which are mostly derived from these verbs). Sense is a generic term referring to all or any of the above, um, senses. These are basic words.

However, all of the senses are involved with emotions; it is a truth universally acknowledged that some things look, sound, taste, smell, or feel much better than others -- and vice versa -- and they can provoke all sorts of emotions. So sense verbs are used constantly as metaphors for the mind, including the emotions. Remember the blind men and the elephant?

  • The whole proposal looks a little shaky to me.
  • The whole proposal feels a little slimy to me.
  • The whole proposal smells a little rotten to me.
  • The whole proposal sounds a little crazy to me.
  • From the proposal, I sense that he wants a little taste of the leisure life.

Since sense is general, it's often used for purported "Extra-sensory perception", or intuition, or other, even less well-defined, um, "sensations".

  • I experience a deep sense of peace whenever I touch the gong.
  • I sensed immediately that they were nervous.
  • Do you sense a shift in their bargaining position here?
  • 1
    This a much better summary of the whole subject of metaphoric use of "sense verbs" than mine which I've deleted. Apart from the "blind men and the elephant", I also remember a blind friend who was just as likely as anyone else to say "Yes, I see what you mean". When I remarked on this once, he made it clear he saw nothing unusual in his usage. Aug 12 '12 at 17:54
  • Yeah, but you're not wrong about anything; no reason to delete. There's a lot of stuff to talk about here; there's an immense literature on sense verbs. I was just skimming the top, and had to resist temptation to go into detail everywhere. More detail is always good. Aug 12 '12 at 18:13
  • 1
    Okay, you talked me into it! I undeleted my answer. But I'm acutely aware it is a poor thing, even if it is mine own. Aug 12 '12 at 21:27

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