Submitted by Dyske  •  January 3, 2003

Perturb vs. Disturb

What is the difference? How would you use them differently?

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Disturb is to distract, disrupt, etc. Perturb is to disturb and subsequently cause annoyance. Like when someone disturbs your slept, you are then perturbed.

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Disturbed is usually used as a transitive verb, used when something acts on another, e.g. he disturbed me. Perturbed is an intransitive adverb describing an agitated state without associating it with an direct external cause, e.g. "When I came upon him, he seemed perturbed".

English needs such separate words because it generally doe not contain transitive and intransitive versions of the same verbs as Japanese does.

As of late, however, disturbed has begun to take on the meaning of an intransitive adverb with one of two meanings: 1, the same usage as perturbed (which is still rare enough to be called incorrect as of yet), and 2, insane or otherwise not in full command of one's faculties.

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There is no such thing as a transitive or intransitive adverb. Both "perturbed" and "disturbed" are participle adjectives when they follow the verb "to be" or other stative verbs i.e. seem, feel, sound, etc. Both perturbed and disturbed are passive verbs using past participle forms when the "by" agent is used. For example, "She was disturbed by the story". In an active sentence, the verb immediately converts to the present participle adjective form, as in "The story was disturbing to her". I hope this helps!

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Wow I feel silly...

Mental note: research before I dangle my participles in public again...

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In the scientific sense, if you perturb a system, like an ecosystem, say, you poke it or mess with it in a very controlled and usually small way to see what happens to it. However, if you disturb a system, the implication is that the system is pretty much wrecked: the system no longer displays the behavior that it displayed in its nondisturbed state.
For example, if you introduce a non-native specie into an ecosystem, if you want to say that it integrated itself into that ecosystem with relative little harm done, you might say that the change "perturbed" the system. However, if you want to emphasize the destructiveness of the nonnative specie, you might say that its introduction disturbed the ecosystem.

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American Heritage, Microsoft Encarta, Chambers--all of these dictionaries (most recent additions) define "perturb" and "disturb" similarly. Two define "perturb" as "to disturb greatly." All have as a second definition the sense of agitation or annoyance.

I'm not sure when I would use one and when I would use the other. Maybe I could start with the nouns "perturbation" and "disturbance" to see what verb choice worked better? "The two soccer fans caused a disturbance; their actions disturbed me; I was disturbed by their actions; I was perturbed by their actions." (It's obvious to me after that exercise that I'm only going to use "perturbation" in the sense of a "perturbation to a system.")

After my playing around, I'd tend to use "disturb" to deal with the act and "perturb" to deal with the result of the act. The disturbance resulted in my perturbance--if you will.

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disturb is much more common anyway

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In Engineering we use the word perturb when we want to disturb the system intentionally for model, design and test purposes. but the disturbance comes during operation and it can be with intention or without

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HonBancho, you are wrong. Perturb is not an intransitive verb, it is completely transitive.
It means to worry someone: News of the arrest perturbed her greatly.
About the 'disturb' it is correct - it's transitive, I would add -> ,too ;)

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