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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Substantial vs. substantive

When I first heard someone use the word ‘substantive’ to mean ‘substantial’ three or four years ago, I assumed that they’d made a mistake. The next few times, which were in political speeches or academic contexts, I assumed it was pedantry or affectation. Now I hear it so much, that I’ve been forced (by my Chambers) to admit that it is probably a reasonable substitute.

Is there any substantial/substantive difference in the way one should use either form? And is there an explanation for the rise (if I am correct in perceiving it as a rise) in the use of ‘substantive’ over ‘substantial’?

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As far as I know, substantive refers to something being real. If evidence is substantive, it means that it is real, convicing, and powerful. Substantial evidence, on the other hand, refers to the amount of evidence. Substantial evidence would in other words mean there is a lot of evidence.

Sydney1 Mar-23-2007

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Yes, substantive is derived from substance, meaning an actual thing as opposed to a hypothetical category. We have substantive problems; we are not imagining them. Its opposite might be ephemeral.

Substantial is a quantitative quality. There is a substantial amount of money in the account; we can afford to go to Europe. Its opposite might be negligeable.

They are false cognates, even as they are related concepts.

Bob3 Mar-27-2007

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When used as adjectives, there is generally no difference between the two. Both have varying meanings, but there seems to be quite a bit of overlap.

In my experience, I usually hear "substantial" to describe a part of something that is either a very significant part or a part that could stand for the whole (i.e. it vaguely indicates the figurative or literal size of something). "Substantive," on the other hand, seems to refer to something of "substance" as distinguished from something "immaterial" -- again, either literally or figuratively.

But really, this is just the way I'm used to hearing them used in my region of the English speaking world. I've seen dictionary definitions (try the American Heritage) that use one as a synonym for the other -- at least generally.

More specifically, however, "substantive" can be a noun. When so used, it refers to any word or phrase that functions as a noun.

"Substantive" as an adjective also has a special meaning in law, wherein it is distinguished from "procedural" (e.g. whether one committed murder is a "substantive" issue, while whether one side or the other has the burden of proof is a "procedural" one). It's usage in law is a bit vaguely defined, but I think it's accurate to say that, if nothing else, anything that is "substantive" is "not procedural."

take care


Jones1 Mar-06-2007

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I'd say they are pretty synonomous, but there are instances when they don't play well together.

"I have a substantial amount of money invested in the stock market." Using "substantive" in that same sentence doesn't sound right.

Furthermore, "substantial" can be used as an adverb:
"Your English has improved substantially." I'm not sure that substantive can get the same treatment.

Austin1 Mar-06-2007

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I like this one (from a UK trade official quoted in the FT a couple of days ago): "The substantive differences are very small." A little awkward perhaps, but it helps to emphasize the difference between the two words - to say that the substantial differences were very small would be contradictory.

I suspect that the increasing use of substantive is probably down to people trying to sound as eddicated as our trade official.

Mark2 Jul-07-2008

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I have just seen an interesting use of "substantive" in an article by Martin Taylor in the August 2009 Prospect magazine. He talks of "the preference of the political process for small steps over substantive ones". This read oddly to me (and has brought me to this site).

In the context of the discussion above which separates quantity (substantial) from significance (substantive) Taylor's use of substantive makes a different point to the one that would be made by the use of the word substantial, but it's confusing because of the idea that political processes prefer things that are not small - which leads you to substantial.

Two usages which would not have led to a "clunk" response on my part would be

"the preference of the political process for small steps rather than substantial ones"


"the preference of the political process for quick-fix/sticking-plaster/cosmetic steps rather than substantive ones".

Of these two and in the context of the article the stronger argument by far is the bottom one - after all one could argue that the UK Government response to the banking crisis (the article's topic) has been substantial but perhaps not yet substantive.

All of which convinces me that there is a useful distinction between the two words, which could usefully be preserved (or perhaps created) - though I don't expect it to be: substantive's misuse for substantial appears to be everywhere.

jon Aug-10-2009

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It appears there is substantial disagreement amongst the commentators on the question whether the difference between the two words is substantive or only superficial. Certainly we could not say that the difference between the two words is "substantial" since it's only 2 letters. However those 2 letters of difference may nevertheless result in a substantive difference in meaning and usage.

Johnolywa Sep-21-2011

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Stan's comment reminds me of a similar disappearance. Whatever happened to the word 'epidemic'? Why is every outbreak of disease now called a 'pandemic' before it's even reached the bottom of the street? Journalistic hyperbole.

Why use 'substantive' in place of 'substantial'? Journalistic bombast.

Rachel2 Jul-19-2010

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Uh, substantial is also derived from substance. There is some overlap in definition and substantial, like substantive, can also refer to something real or stout, strong, etc. A substantial meal is a hearty one, not necessarily a large one.

anonymous4 Mar-28-2007

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Stan Jones, do you have any reference materials to back that up? As far as I know, the possessive pronoun, "its" does not take an apostrophe in the UK either. Such an apostrophe is not taught in British schools or approved of in any UK grammar books or style guides, nor is it commonly embraced by the British populace, at least, not any more or less than anyone in the United States. Without starting yet another prescriptive vs. descriptive arument, most just consider it a careless mistake.

porsche Feb-13-2011

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It seems the British put the apostrophe in where Americans do not. It looks odd (=wrong) to us, but that’s the way they are brought up. They’re not going to change, so get used to it.

Sorry, Stan I teach English and the only reason you will see an apostrophe in "its" (as a possessive pronoun) in Britain or US is where someone has made an error. British English and American English both use the same word !

I don't have to "get used to it" but the person who makes this elementary error has to get used to appearing poorly educated.

ducie1 Feb-13-2011

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-substantive: credible as to a component or content (like the above mentioned, "not imagined" or "to be"); in jurisprudence, compares/contrasts with 'procedural'
-substantial: crucial as to effect on the whole, as in magnitude

There's a substantive (as opposed procedural) change in our policy (but not our protocols), but it's not substantial.

The substantive debates over candidates' semantics were substantial in the media last election. In this election, however, the coverage has been more subdued.

lastronin Feb-18-2008

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Substantive means ' standing under' , i.e. the item which we are considering at the moment as in 'substantive motion' and is not the same as substantial which of course means something significant or considerable.

Prof_Peter_Styles Dec-28-2008

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I grew up with "substantial" and noticed just a few years ago reading the newspaper that everyone suddenly started to use "substantive" for EVERYTHING. I don't think I've seen the word "substantial" in the paper since. Someone seems to have decreed its banishment from journalism. If we could find who that dictator is, perhaps we could reverse the process.
I was taught in school (long ago) that "substantive" meant a noun, and was a "grammar" word like "verb" or "subject", although I can see how it could also mean anything real or material. "Substantial" meant big or solid or important. As in, "we have substantial evidence to convict...", which would not be the same as "we have substantive evidence to convict," although the average person would not note any nuance between them.

stan Jul-12-2010

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So, a scholarly journal article could be substantial, or substantive? As in "Students, there are articles in journals of only one page, but for your paper find two that are more substantial (quantative use). We need to find substantive (real, or maybe significant) journal articles that show research methods for a study...blah blah blah." Actually I want to use only one word or the other in reference to journal articles of substance. Opinions are welcome on which to use about scholarly journal articles.

Connie1 Apr-22-2008

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"Substantive", used as a noun, in grammar (or in old grammar terminology) means "noun" or a noun phrase functioning as such in the sentence.

The term "substantif" is still used in French grammar. If you can read French, you can have a look at the following link: , in which there is a brief definition of the term "substantif".

Its use as an adjective in English, however, is less common and tends to be found in (as you mentioned) "political speeches or academic contexts". In old grammar terminology, "substantive" was used interchangeably as both a noun and adjective: pertaining to substantives, or a substantive adjective i.e. functioning as a noun in a phrase. In addition, there were "substantive verbs" that expressed existence such as "to be". All this explains the "formality" surrounding the uncommon use of the term as an adjective.

wisstnb Apr-17-2007

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"It's usage in law is a bit vaguely defined, but I think it's accurate to say that, if nothing else, anything that is "substantive" is "not procedural.

OH, JONES, HOW COULD YOU ? "It's usage" !!!!!!" - is this as in "IT IS USAGE" because if you are referring to the possessive pronoun "ITS" then why are you using an apostrophe? Your erudite comments are wrecked by this ignorance...

ducie1 Feb-11-2011

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While generally synonymous, I think of substantive vs. substantial as the difference between quality and quantity.

Bill1 Apr-24-2011

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I've never heard 'Substantive' being used in non-political conversation in all my 70 years. I hate hearing the word on radio or tv, and I'm a wordsmith!

Jill1 Jun-14-2011

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In reading a stipulation prepared by the parties and presented to the hearing officer for his approval as to form and content, the following was added in the hearing officer's handwriting just above his signature: "It should be noted that pages 7 and 8 are substantively blank." It just didn't look "right" to me and I thought that it was added to show not only that the author was wide awake and on his toes, but that his use of "substantively" rather than "substantially" was meant to demonstrate that the author was somehow "really smart." I mean, why use "substantively" when there were other commonly used adjectives available to convey the fact that the referenced pages in the document as presented to the hearing officer were "substantially" blank. Just a feeling on my part, but the thought that "something was going on" eventually led me to this site. And what a wonderful place this is! I'm in way over my head - there are some really smart people making comments here - but I think I'm going enjoy being a fly on your wall.

fogcityfred Oct-06-2011

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Substantive: having substance
Substantial: having large quantity of substance
Substantial is a more specific adjective than substantive. In other words, something that is substantial implies that it is substantive. The converse is not necessarily true. For example, if you witnessed a minor car accident, the scratch on the car was substantive. The damage actually happened and it was real. You did not imagine it. However, the damage was not substantial because it was just a minor scratch.

anonymous1 Jan-23-2012

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[...] Pain in the English has a debate about substantive versus substantial. [...]

substantial_vs._substantive_-_Writing_for_Business Feb-05-2010

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You are probably right, I spoke from observation, not direct knowledge of the rules. I have seen a few "it's" online, and the British writers seemed to use it more consistently and appeared to be well-educated otherwise, while Americans used it less often and it seemed to be more a typo for them. Hence was an assumption born. This is the wrong forum for that!

stan Feb-14-2011

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It's ludicrous, yet another horrific neologism. Journalists and their readers think they're up-to-the-minute, on top of tough technical topics, and just generally more intellectually substantial when they use big words. As has been pointed out by others, this term used to be specific and useful in its original context.

anonymous4 Jul-19-2011

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... "It should be noted that pages 7 and 8 are substantively blank." ...

Wow, for the life of me, I can't even imagine what that means. Does the blankness of pages 7 and 8 have great importance? Are pages 7 and 8 sparkly white, blanker than other blank sheets? Or perhaps they are substantially but not entirely blank, not blank at all?

porsche May-24-2012

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Curriculae, Cassie? Curricula is already plural, the plural of curriculum.

porsche Sep-16-2012

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Substantive has replaced substantial for no good reason, as far as I can tell, other than fashion and (now rather threadbare) novelty, in the same way the cumbersome "impactful" (is that even a word?) is often heard in place of the utilitarian but presumably old-fashioned "effective."

james1 Feb-04-2017

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It seems the British put the apostrophe in where Americans do not. It looks odd (=wrong) to us, but that's the way they are brought up. They're not going to change, so get used to it.

stan Feb-12-2011

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Hi Richard, some words can definitely take both, but I would probably read 'there's substantial evidence against him' as meaning a lot of evidence, and 'there's substantive evidence against him' as meaning important evidence.

The same would go for change:

'There have been substantial changes in the law on drink-driving' - a lot of changes
'There have been substantive changes in the law on drink-driving' - important changes (though not necessarily a lot)

Looking at various dictionaries, it seems to me that the use 'substantive' is pretty well restricted to the 'important' meaning, and I'd never use it for 'a lot of',. But there does seem to be a bit of crossover with 'substantial' when it comes to 'important'.

'There is substantial agreement between the company and the unions' could go either way, perhaps, but I could presumably then add 'but the substantive question of redundancies has still to be addressed'.

I confess, however, that 'substantive' is not a word I ever use, and I'm only going by what the dictionaries say, so I bow to your better judgement.

Warsaw Will Sep-30-2013

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Substantial is normally quantitative; substantive is normally qualitative; for example, it could be said that subtantial, substantive evidence exists..

PEL Mar-29-2012

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My understansing is that the difference is whether you are looking to describe something as having qualitative (substantial) or quantitative (substantive) properties.

Speechie Coach Apr-16-2012

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The importance of teaching grammar and spelling in schools has been overtaken by the need to incorporate the ever emerging new subjects appearing on our curriculae. Thus together with world wide online interconnectivity fostering new meaning for words, based on their repeated, inaccurate, uncensored usage, is sadly contributing to a degradation of the English language as we know it.

cassie Jun-24-2012

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I always take...

substantial to mean significant in size or volume, something tangible or measurable. e.g a substantial sum of money was spent on the celebrations

and, substantive to mean important, something signifcant but which cannot be measured e.g a substantive truth

Noel Sep-11-2013

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@jayles -I'm sure you're right in a more specialist sense, but I think Noel's got it as a more general use, and that's the one dictionaries give:

having a firm basis in reality and so important, meaningful, or considerable
- there is no substantive evidence for the efficacy of these drugs - Oxford
The family appeared at the press conference but made no substantive comments - Macmillan
The State Department reported that substantive discussions had taken place with Beijing. (Longman)
Substantive research on the subject needs to be carried out. - Cambridge

Warsaw Will Sep-12-2013

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Think of the difference like this:
I tend to think in this regard of 'physicality' - what are the physical characteristics that I can relate it to. So, 'substantial' refers to 'volume' - in terms of political or legal argument, a particular aspect may get the most attention and number of words or time spent talking about it - that aspect forms the substantial part of the argument. However, 'substantive' is to do with 'weight', force or pressure. So, going back to our political or legal argument, the substantive part of the argument may appear inconsequential at first and not have got too much of a mention but at the end of the day it will be the aspect that carried the greatest weight with the electorate (or Jury). I think of the 'poll tax ' - the thing that probably brought Margaret Thatcher down or seriously tarnished her image. She may not have regarded it as substantial in terms of what she was 'about' but it was certainly 'substantive' in the electorates mind - it carried enormous weight. So, 'substantive' can mean the straw that broke the camels back or it may also be aligned with the substantial part of an argument IF the substantial part of the argument (greatest volume of words) is the persuasive aspect that carries or wins the argument. The substantial part of a speech may have been so much hot air but the substantive part may have been just one sentence - or it may all have been hot air in which case their was not 'substantive' part.

Richard Gammons Sep-30-2013

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To put it another way, you can almost always replace 'substantial' with 'large(amount of)' or 'a lot of', and 'substantive' with 'important', as we can see if we look at their main collocates (words that are most often used together with them)

Main collocates for 'substantial' include:
number, amount, evidence, increase, portion part etc

Main collocates for 'substantive' include:
changes, law, issues, rules, requirements, rights

Warsaw Will Sep-30-2013

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The word substantive is used frequently in patent prosecution. "Substantive examination" of a patent application is taken to mean a full and in-depth examination by the examiner, as opposed to the more superficial initial examination done by the searching authority.

Jon B May-24-2012

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I thought substantive is derived from the word substance. As in, the politician's speech was substantive. (it had substance) and I only just realized that I have been pronouncing the word wrong too. I pronounce it sub-stan-tive instead of sub-sta-n-tive with the n silent. I just love our language. I wish more people would learn it.

ebbill Sep-16-2012

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What an exciting and worthwhile critical discussion! I believe that the closer structural [phonetic and semantic] affinity between the words "substantive" and "substantial" is largely responsible for the mix-up, especially so in view of the manner in which they are interchanged unknowingly yet increasingly in common usage, leading to the fusion of the fine distinction between them in the social process [with both words as probably derived from the root word substance (?)]. I have witnessed a lot of this across a number of other world languages. My take on this, however, would be that the word "substantive" is temporally [qualitatively, intensively] marked compact space, and the term "substantial" spatially [quantitatively, extensively] constituted vast time, Whereas the former is informed by a sense of "distinctness" [of the compactness of space], the latter by a degree of "togetherness" [of the vastness of time]. It somehow boils down to both variation and emphasis, either of temporality and quality over spatiality and quantity and vice versa, that is, "substantive" over "substantial" and vice versa. Therein, lies the fine distinction between them, either in their separate or combined usage..

[NB. Not that time and space are separable entities. Far from it. For time and space, either as ontological entities -- that is, common medium in which all things are, or as epistemological entities -- that is, their relative arrangement across cultures, are inseparable in reality, as in nature, mind and society. Many thanks.

Hufanga Jun-06-2013

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"Substantive" is a term widely used in auditing and has nothing to do with substantial

It is commonly contrasted with a systems audit, and often focuses on looking at major transactions and items, so ideally all big stuff is audited and just a random sample is taken from minor items and checked.

jayles Sep-11-2013

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I believe you are substantively correct but, I believe, not entirely correct - just substantially correct! I reckon 'evidence' might be substantive - microscopic (DNA?) - but substantive in that it provides the 'weight' of the evidence/argument

Richard Gammons Sep-30-2013

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HI Will
I think you have it exactly right and discussing it with you has also helped clarify it -
All the best

Richard Gammons Sep-30-2013

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In general when politicians speak they exude a substantial amount of verbal froth. This is so because—again in general—they do not wish to commit themselves on substantive issues in case their position ultimately proves unpopular and jeopardises their seat on the gravy train.

To put it briefly, the substantive point here is that politicians are a worse than a waste of space—they are substantially parasitic on the body politic.

Yet people continue to vote for these creatures of no substance rather than hang them. Life is full of mysteries.

John Archer Mar-01-2014

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To me, substantive relates to quality, where substantial relates to size.

"The two parties engaged substantively" - ie, well
"The two parties engaged substantially" - ie, a lot

Seravorn Mar-10-2020

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