Sunday, November 18, 2012

Apple #611: Grateful vs Thankful

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we'll all soon be giving thanks for the many good things in our lives.  Some of us have already started doing that.  I've noticed that sometimes people say they're "grateful" and sometimes they say they're "thankful."  Which got me wondering, what's the difference between the two words?  There must be some difference; they're two different words.

So what is the difference between "grateful" and "thankful"?

At Thanksgiving dinner, we are grateful.
(Photo from DIY)

  • I did a lot of looking online, and various sources disagree on this.  Some say there is no difference, some say there is a difference, but they disagree with each other about which one means what thing. Some dictionaries even use one word to define the other and vice versa.  
  • I'm basing my answer on the most authoritative sources out there, and the ones that can explain why they use the definitions they do.  This, of course, means the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite reference book of all time), as well as a few other sources.
  • I know, I know, you don't want all the background mishmash, you just want the answer.  OK, here it is.  Then I'll get into the details.
  • Grateful = the feeling is directed to a person
  • Thankful = feeling of gratitude in general, or to God or luck or good fortune or some intangible force
  • Don't believe me, or need help remembering the difference?  I'll break it down for you. 

This is a good depiction of grateful.  An exchange between two people.
(Photo from Whispy lifestyle)

  • Grateful, says the 1828 edition of Webster's, is "kindly disposed towards one from whom a favor has been received."
  • That same dictionary uses almost exactly the same definition for thankful, except it leaves out the "towards one from whom" part.
  • My OED's definition of grateful begins "Of persons, their actions and attributes."
  • You can say, "I'm grateful to Mr. Rogers for making my childhood more enjoyable."  But you can't say "I'm thankful to Mr. Rogers," etc.  That just sounds weird.
  •  That's because you can be grateful to a person, but you can't be thankful to a person.

Here's a question.  Can you be grateful to animals?  I'm going to say yes.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

  • The words are very close in meaning, and the reason it gets confusing is when the words change grammatical form, the meanings change.  You do say, "Thank you, Mr. Rogers" but you don't say, "Grate you, Mr. Rogers."
  • Because we often thank people it seems like we should be able to be thankful to people.  But, nope.  We are grateful to people and thankful to God (or good luck, or fortune, or unseen forces).

This is being thankful.  Thanking the universe.
(Photo from

  • If it's a general situation that has affected you positively, then you say you're thankful: "I'm thankful that the traffic on the way to Sesame Street was not bad" or "I'm thankful that my ice cream cone did not fall to the floor."
  • But if you can identify a person as being somehow responsible for the favorable situation, then you use grateful: "I'm grateful that those semi trucks turned off on another road while I was on my way to Sesame Street," or "I'm grateful to my brother for not knocking my ice cream cone to the floor." 

When we have Thanksgiving, we are giving thanks to God (or to good fortune or the universe) for our family.
(Photo from Dan Arnold's page)

  • All this said, if you mix up the two words, the grammar police will not come to arrest you. And for that, you can be grateful.*
  • (*This is assuming that the grammar police exist.)

1828 Noah Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, grateful and thankful
Online Etymology Dictionary, grateful and thank
My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary
OneLook, grateful and thankful

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