What's the difference between rigor and rigorousness?

Which should I use in the following?

Rigorousness and clarity are not synonymous in pedagogy.

  • In this case you should use rigor because it's shorter and consistent with clarity, which is also short. It's just a style choice in this sentence. Beyond that, what tchrist says in his answer is spot on.
    – user21497
    Dec 26, 2012 at 3:53

3 Answers 3


The relationship between rigor and rigorousness is that rigor is similar in meaning to “severity” or “strictness”, but rigorousness is primarily “the abstract property of having to do with, or being inclined to, rigor”. As for which is best in your sentence, it simply comes down to which one you mean.

The suffixes -ous and -ness are productive, meaning they are used by English speakers as part of habits or “rules” for producing new words. These compound words, in the ears of English speakers, will generally mean what the individual parts mean.

The suffix -ous takes a noun X and creates an adjective X-ous which stands for “having X”, “full of X”, “having to do with X”, “doing X”, or “inclined to X”.¹

  • avariceavaricious (having/full of/having to do with/doing/inclined to avarice)
  • beautybeauteous (having/full of/having to do with/doing/inclined to beauty)
  • cancercancerous (having/full of/having to do with/doing/inclined to cancer)

The suffix -ness can take an adjective Y and create a noun Y-ness which stands for the abstract action, quality, or state which Y has to do with.² You can think of this as converting a description of something to a property which it possesses.

  • riperipeness (abstract action, quality, or state property from ripe)
  • strangestrangeness (abstract action, quality, or state property from strange)
  • tighttightness (abstract action, quality, or state property from tight)

As you might expect, then, when these productive suffixes are used together with a noun Z, the resulting compound Z-ous-ness will mean “the abstract action, quality or state of having/being full of/having to do with/doing/being inclined to Z”. You can think of this as converting a thing to an abstract property having to do with such a thing.

  • mysterymysteriousness (the abstract property of having to do with a mystery)
  • numbernumerousness (the abstract property of having a number)
  • odorodorousness (the abstract property of having an odor)

Because these habits or “rules” of new word production are instilled into the minds of English speakers, they will find it possible to make sense of words which are invented using this method, even when the combinations have never been seen before.

  • santorumsantorumousness (the abstract property of having to do with santorum)

Such habits or “rules” are not, of course, the whole story. Once a new word is coined by compounding with suffixes and becomes a popular word, it is tossed and buffeted by the same social forces which cause all words to evolve in meaning. The compound may acquire unique connotations which do not wholly apply to its parts. A good dictionary will provide this information.

  • If you were saying the original statement, would you use rigor or rigorousness?
    – qazwsx
    Dec 29, 2012 at 22:41

There are many other pairs of words like this in English, just as joy and joyousness (or joyfulness), or somewhat more indirectly, pugnacity and pugnaciousness. Most of them mean the same in the longer and shorter form, but some can sometimes carry additional nuance and so do not always allow complete swapping.

In this particular case, I believe they are identical, and that you can replace rigorousness with rigor in your example sentence:

Rigor and clarity are not synonymous in pedagogy.

However, when rigor means “severe”, I don’t think you can do so as easily. For example:

The rigourousness of the trail under blizzard conditions was a true test of the pioneer spirit.

I really don’t think you can swap that one the way you can with your own example.

The OED defines rigorousness as

Rigorous action, procedure, or temper; rigour.

And rigorous has in turn several senses of its own. One of these is very strict and exacting, but another is very harsh weather. I think only the first swaps for rigor very easily.

  • You mean rigor can't mean harshness of weather bug rigorousness can?
    – qazwsx
    Dec 26, 2012 at 4:22
  • @Problemania Can’t is a strong word. But maybe. Rigorous goes both ways, but I do not know for sure about rigor itself.
    – tchrist
    Dec 26, 2012 at 4:39
  • Rigor does indeed have among its meanings a sense of “severity (of living conditions)”.
    – MetaEd
    Dec 26, 2012 at 6:28
  • @MετάEd That would be “the rigors of the trail”, not “the rigor of the trail”. Note plural.
    – tchrist
    Dec 26, 2012 at 13:36
  • 1
    Surely you mean, "when rigorous means “severe”"?
    – user1635
    Dec 26, 2012 at 14:33

Rigorousness is a general word that can be applied in any context.

Rigor is an established term used in the pedagogical field, and in its critique.

... academic rigor ... “a demanding yet accessible curriculum that engenders critical-thinking skills as well as content knowledge.”

For an interesting report, see DEFINING RIGOR IN HIGH SCHOOL: Framework and Assessment Tool [pdf 160kB]

... the term “rigor” in the context of high school improvement can be used as shorthand for a set of ideas, principles and strategies that lead to a desired outcome—all students are well prepared for post-secondary education, career and civic life. These ideas, principles and strategies comprise a conceptual framework to guide reform. Rigor can be talked about in terms of specific course requirements and curricula, in terms of the quality of content and instruction, and in terms of strategies to support improved student achievement.


Rigor: The single-word anthem of educators everywhere. While it’s sad to know that there are people that don’t believe that educators haven’t been expecting the best out of our children all along, “rigor” seems to imply as if they’re putting our kids through boot camp.

When writing on pedagogy, never use one term for the other.

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