What do each of them mean exactly? Is either (or both) the opposite of "progress"?
Could someone please explain the difference?

To add some context:

When I look up the definitions I see the definition for regress is "to return to a previous, usually worse or less developed state", whereas the definition for retrogress is "to go back to an earlier, esp worse, condition".

They both look the same to me: antonyms of "progress".
But when I used the term "retrogress" at one point someone corrected me to use the word "regress", and I didn't understand what the difference is... so now I'm confused at how the two are different, and when to use which.

  • A regression analysis is a statistical tool which compares the effects of variable parts of a complex inter-reacting system on a resulting product.
    – user195499
    Sep 9, 2016 at 8:07

5 Answers 5


Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, revised edition (1984) offers an extended discussion of the similar word pair retrogressive and regressive, both of which it treats as members of a group of synonyms that also includes retrograde and backward. Here is the relevant coverage:

backward, retrograde, retrogressive, regressive all involve the idea of not moving or going ahead, or forward, or in advance. ... Retrogressive implies opposition to progressive. Like retrograde, and unlike backward, it implies movement in the direction that is the reverse of forward; unlike retrograde, however, it is seldom applied to physical movement; thus, one speaks of a retrograde (but not a retrogressive) movement or rotation, but on might speak of retrogressive (or retrograde) cruelties or behavior when stressing decline from some higher or more progressive level. Retrogressive is sometimes preferred as a milder term when the reverse of improvement or betterment rather than positive decline from an improved or better state is implied {a retrogressive policy} {objections were made to the proposed legislation on the ground of its probable retrogressive effect} Regressive carries a stronger implication of going backward by steps or degrees and often, also, a weaker implication of failure to progress or move ahead than any of the others. Consequently it is often the preferred term when a colorless or uncolored statement of fact is intended; thus, when one infers a cause from an effect or a principle from a number of facts he follows a regressive process of reasoning; the process of growing old may be described as a retrogressive development when the stress is on the absence of progress, and a regressive development when the intent is to indicate that it is marked by an inversion of order in its stages; a regressive loss of memory implies that the most recent memories disappear first and the earliest linger longest.

Applying the general tenor off the distinctions between the adjective forms retrogressive and regressive to the verb forms retrogress and regress, we might say that although both involve figurative (that is, not actual physical) movement in the opposite direction from the one in which progress lies, to retrogress is to move backward (figuratively speaking) to an unspecified extent while to regress is to move backward (figuratively) in a series of incremental steps, stages, or degrees.

I must say, though, that I have no confidence that English speakers in general use these two very similar words with any such distinction in mind.

It also bears noting that retrogress is a far less common word than regress, as this Ngram chart of retrogress (blue line) versus regress (red line) versus retrogressive (green line) versus regressive (yellow line) for the period 1800–2008 indicates:

Between 1850 and 1920 or so, the frequencies of regress, regressive, and retrogressive in published writing seem to have been fairly close, after which regress and (especially) regressive took off; but retrogress has been the least common of the four forms since at least 1840, and in recent decades it has become very rare indeed.

  • Interesting, thanks! One thing I was thinking about today was that, in my mind, "regress" implies moving backward despite trying to make forward progress, while "retrogress" seems to imply that the intent was actually moving backward. Does this seem consistent with your understanding?
    – user541686
    Feb 7, 2020 at 6:35
  • @user541686: Merriam-Webster seems to take the opposite view: that retrogress(ive) applies to a one-off situation where backward figurative movement—whether intended or not—occurs, but regress(ive) applies to a stepwise backward figurative movement, which implies a planned process. I never understood the distinction between the two words that way; in my uninformed mind, retrogress represented a more severe backward movement than regress, probably because I associated retrogress with retrograde in the astronomical sense of planets sometimes seeming to move backward through the sky.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 7, 2020 at 6:49
  • Ah I see. Yeah, your understanding seems more consistent with mine, but interesting regardless, thanks!
    – user541686
    Feb 7, 2020 at 6:50

In normal usage there isn’t much difference between the two. There are eight main definitions of the verb regress in the Oxford English Dictionary against three for retrogress, and all three have cross references to various definitions of regress.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus show that regress is much more frequent in both American and British English. Unless you have a very good reason for using retrogress, your language is more likely to be effective if you use regress instead.


I am not sure but the following sentence(taken from - "A Grammar of Freethought", Chapman Cohen), I think the antonym of progress is retrogress.

At one time we call its consequences moral or progressive, at another time we call them immoral or retrogressive, but these are some of the distinctions which the human mind creates for its own convenience, they have no validity in any other sense.

From an online thesaurus, its found that

Main Entry: regress

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: return to earlier way of doing things

Synonyms: backslide, degenerate, deteriorate, ebb, fall away, fall back, fall off, go back, lapse, lose ground, recede, relapse, retreat, retrogress , revert, roll back, sink, throw back, turn back

Antonyms: develop, grow, progress

so antonym of regress is also progress.

Worsen or to sink or to collapse is retrogress. To diminish or to decay is regress.

In the novel, the survivors of a nuclear explosion retrogress into a state of barbarism and anarchy.

And while many autistic children show signs of autism from birth, some seem to develop normally but then regress after their first year.

But when to use these two, is entirely depends on the context, i think.


If I hav really grasped the meaning of the prefixes; re and retro, I will say and use regress to mean moving in the same circular path instead of fresh new path, whereas retrogress would mean moving backwards to a lower or less developed or less efficacious path / state.


regression = going back to a previous state from 0 to 5 it goes back to 3. retrogression = going back to a state its never been. From 0 to 5 it goes back to -2. its how I persieve it

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