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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

Social vs Societal

Last year in my college English 1201 class, my professor always crossed out the word “societal” on a paper I did. He would write above it “ should use ‘social’ instead...” Does that have something to do with context. Is there a situation where one of the words is wrong and one is appropriate? and why if they are synonyms and the same part of speech would there be a seperate rule?

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Difference Between Social and Societal

The main difference between social and societal is that the adjective social can describe people, whereas the adjective societal cannot describe people.

Both adjectives social and societal mean pertaining to society or social relations. In this context, these two adjectives are interchangeable. The adjective social also has an additional meaning – it also describes people who enjoy being with others. However, the adjective societal does not have this meaning.

tohid Oct-12-2022

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historians use social; anthropology and sociology people use societal

AlexEN Oct-01-2022

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I am writing my MA dissertation, which uses social science methods for applied linguistics. I have been writing 'societal change' instead of 'social change' because of the latter's association in my mind with political activism. After reading the above discussion (or most of it - it's nearly lunchtime) I am considering changing it to 'changes in society', thus avoiding any unintended connotations or pomposity.

Mango Jul-16-2019

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Although I understand from this forum that many native speakers regard "societal" as a pompous synonym for "social", to me as a native Dutch speaker there is a clear difference. That is because in Dutch there is a difference between "sociaal" (referring to interpersonal relationships, usually at personal level) and "maatschappelijk" (referring to the formal structure of society).

The example of Rashad (above) is interesting in this context, because as Dutchman I sense a clear difference between the two sentences:

a) "Teenage pregnancy is a serious social problem."
b) "Teenage pregnancy is a serious societal problem."

with a) referring to problems in the interaction of the teenage girls and their immediate social environment (~the girls need help), and b) referring to problems to society as a whole (~we need policy).

As this distinction appears less clear in English, it is difficult to translate "maatschappelijk" without losing its specific meaning, as El Bjorno already remarked above.

Moreover, on my quest to proper translation I noticed that in English too there is a need to make this distinction, especially in science and policy.

BartH Aug-29-2018

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this is a good publication

maxime Apr-07-2017

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I hope you're still not running a proofreading service, as just glancing at this post I've spotted two errors. That doesn't fill me with confidence! You've missed a question mark at the end of one sentence, and the word 'separate' has an 'a' in the middle, not an 'e'.

Babooshka Mar-28-2017

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@WW Quite right my dear fellow!
I just have a couple of quick questions for you:

1) Do you advise your students NOT to start a sentence with "but" when writing in an English exam?

2) Do you advise your students to comma off "comment" such as "Personally" at the start of a sentence?

The point here is that without a style guide or some element of prescriptivism, no one knows what is right or wrong: for instance if I write "the provided information" the meaning is clear and unambiguous, although the phrase is not in the normal word order: correct or exellent?

Beyond my scope to comment on the societal ills of American culture.

jayles the unwoven Apr-03-2015

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I'll ignore all the historical / social stuff, which I suspect is a lot of 'golden age' bunkum; rear-view mirrorism, I think it's called; you know the sort of thing: 'back in the good old days', 'nowadays everything's being dumbed down', and so on. Whereas I imagine that if you used any objective criteria like overall exam results etc, this fear would be found to be groundless.

However, I do think JohnH makes one good point. There is an unfortunate propensity on this forum to ascribe motives such as pretentiousness, or even worse 'middle management' pretentiousness, to people who use language the commenter doesn't approve of, and I think that smacks of a certain intellectual snobbery. Which I think is rather sad.

I am fascinated though as to what JohnH means by 'linguistic excellence'. One dictionary defines linguistic as 'connected with language or the scientific study of language', and surely the main function of language isto communicate with other people. Now I think a lot of London street traders communicate excellently with their customers, although not in a language that is considered Standard English; most mothers communicate excellently with thier babies, but perhaps not in a very elegant way - is this what JohnH means by linguistic excellence? I suspect not.

I tried googling "linguistic excellence", and apart from a lot of references to the "linguistic excellence of the Koran" and other religious texts, all I could find was stuff about people who are able to learn a lot of languages, and the role of language in Ancient Greece and Rome. But I did find a couple of references in academic books:

"Consequently, from the point of view of general linguistic excellence, nothing matters except the ability of the sentences in that language to convey transparently and without ambiguity their meaning", Stephen Everson, Language, Cambridge

By this definition, my London street trader and mum would qualify as having linguistic excellence, I imagine. But many people would no doubt come up with a definition more like this one:

"The view of language was a monodialectical one in which the role of language education was to eliminate (through the use of sanctions) variant forms, thus maintaining the language's imagined purity, and to impose norms of perceived linguistic excellence, thus safeguarding its future. Linguistic change of any kind was widely perceived to be deterioration", ed. Rebecca S Wheeler, The Workings of Language, Greenwood (talking about 18th and 19th century prescriptivism).

Which brings us back to the old question of who decides what is 'correct', and what is 'excellence' (and in what contexts). If 'linguistic excellence' here is closer to the first definition, then perhaps it's worth striving for. If it's more like the second, it's just the old prescriptivism in a different guise.

Warsaw Will Apr-02-2015

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Generally speaking the word "societal" is only used when speaking of a society as whole, as in, "The American public is a societal melting pot of many cultures". The word "Social" can also be used to refer to the whole of a society, but is most commonly understood to refer to small groups with in a larger society, as in "New York City has a very divers social structure." The word, Social or societal, could be used in either of these instances but societal, feels better when used to refer to society as a whole.

The problem I see here, is not the proper usage of of the word societal, but has to do with a greater societal problem with the American culture. In the past, the American culture was one that encouraged people to strive for personal excellence at all levels. They had very high standards that people had to live up to in order to gain respect within the society. In other words, the bar of acceptability was placed very high and people had to reach up to reach it. Unfortunately, the modern American culture has lowered the bar of acceptability so low that you have to dig down to get to it, and anyone one that tries to raise that bar up is attacked as being 'Pretentious". The modern American culture abhors the idea that there should be a standard that a person must try to live up to and fights to keep any such standard from arising. We want a standard that anyone can reach, even without trying. Actually, in some social groups within the American culture, they actually pride themselves in their complete and utter inadequacy and incompetency. In these social groups, they consider the bar of acceptability to be one that encourages them to become the most useless, reprobate and disrespectful human being they can be. The unfortunate thing is that, I have observed that the trend of these social groups at striving for dis-excellence has permeated the American societal culture as a whole.

Even in the comments to this question we can clearly see those that overtly attack anyone that would try to strive for linguistic excellence. Their argument has not been that to use the word "Societal" is improper (if used in the proper context), but that the people using it are only trying to use it to pretend to be better then others (pretentious). This is a very typical and common response among this this modern American culture that encourages dis-excellence and attacks and tries to discourage anyone one that would dare to strive for excellence.

The fact is that "Societal" is a recognized word that has a proper usage. The idea that the word can only be used by a certain group of people (social sciences) and that anyone else who tries to use it is only being pretentious, is a farce that is only perpetuated by those that seek to promote dis-excellence and want to discourage any attempt at raising the societal bar of acceptability.

JohnH Apr-01-2015

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Late to the party but I have a theory that makes societal a word that is redundant, yet made for a cognizable purpose.

Cold war affected political thinking much more in the U.S. than the U.K. - being one of the two superpowers that were the centers of gravity during the Cold War. While the USSR was "communist", another word that is used in similar contexts is "socialist". Thus, within the political lexicon, "socialist", and thereby, "social", becomes a dirty word. But, we still need a word to describe things having to do with society, without portraying them so negatively. Thus; societal. Explains why it came about only somewhat recently, though found to be in dictionaries at least forty years ago, mostly in the United States.

tiki May-14-2014

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Just a quick shout-out in support of 'societal' from an academic social science and political philosophy perspective, as suggested by some posters above. In this field, 'societal' is frequently a useful word when wanting to distinguish different levels/units of analysis. That is, 'societal' would be used to indicate that one is speaking at the level of societies taken as wholes, whereas 'social' tends to suggest goings-on internal to societies. For instance, "Habermas's approach is to offer a general theory of right conduct, concerned with the social interactions of individuals and groups, whereas Rawls's focus is purely at the societal level, concerned with what he calls the 'basic structure' of societies; their dominant institutions, laws, schemes of distribution, and so on."

In other words, 'social' = pertaining to things that happen in societies; 'societal' = pertaining to societies as entities. Definitely not just trying to sound clever or complex or newfangled, which I dislike as much as the next language connoisseur! (Looking at you, 'disconnect' as a noun.) It's just that precision of meaning trumps all else in my book.

H3000 Apr-21-2014

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@Rocky - I talked simply about social change happening at a societal change as a way of trying to explain the use of the word societal (so yes, I was very concerned with the language point); I wasn't trying to score any political points, unless talking about societal shifts is being political - I would have thought it was more sociological, myself. And I certainly didn't introduce politically-loaded words like indoctrination.

Now at the risk of sounding sarcastic, you really did make me laugh in your last comment (and I was being perfectly genuine, not sarcastic when I said I admired and laughed at Rashad's comment, where I thought he showed considerable and humorous restraint at his rough handling by Az)

You say 'I would suggest you go to a politics forum, and leave people interested in language alone, but you probably go to many forums, where you impose your rants.'

Sorry to say, but this is the only forum where I take part, and have been doing so regularly for four years or so, without ever having been accused of being political until now. I never comment on politics or the news, but do comment on a couple of language blogs, have my own language blog and teach English for a living, so I really don't think I can be accused of not being interested in language.

Yes, I do rant occasionally, but only against pedantry in language.

As for my comments 'not being the sort of thing one wants on a language forum' I hope you won't mind if I leave that to my peers, the other regular commenters on PITE, many of whom disagree with me on language points, but whose politics I have no idea about, to decide.

Warsaw Will Apr-15-2014

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This all just reminds me of the reasons why I am yet still a little hesitant to start using the word societal on a regular basis. I feel like it is always dangerous to make assumptions about large groups of people and statements made about societies as a whole are doing just that. How can we as individuals ever accurately access what is going on at the societal level? The statement "Cannot see the forest because of the all those trees" is exactly what comes to mind. Statements made by individuals about "perceived" societal biases will always be subjective, skewed by the biases of the individual. Statistics are the only way I can think of to begin to try to make statements about where society as a whole is going. A national vote is a statistical analysis of sort, so a society that votes regularly at least has some manner of determining the societal biases of the day based on the way the particular vote turned out. Aside from voting or publishing surveys, it is hard to really know for certain what is going on at the societal level, so maybe we should be careful in making statements about societal issues because if another individual disagrees with our assessment of the societal trend the conversation will be stunted. Either stunted or one or the other party will have no choice but to prove why their statements on society as a whole are true which usually leads to a derailing of some sort or other.

Rashad Apr-15-2014

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I don't think either of you is deliberately trying to derail the thread. I think we are looking at a genuine issue of language and miscommunication.

The more I consider it, I think it is rather difficult to discuss societal issues while avoiding politics altogether. Warsaw Will helped explain to me why "governmental" would not be a good synonym for the word societal...fine. But maybe the word "political" is in some cases. Our political views as a nation could be stated as our societal views. Or better stated: Don't our societal views shape and influence our national politics? Cannot our national politics affect our societal biases?

Indoctrination is an interesting consideration, as it proves that sometimes our societal biases can be handed down (taught) to our social circles, which are then handed back to our societal infrastructures. It can make it difficult or even impossible to determine where the original idea was born, at the social level or at the societal level, which I think gets to the point Rocky and Warsaw are discussing. I'd say you are both right, in that once an ideal reaches the societal level, it will have social impacts as well which make the chicken vs egg argument difficult to qualify.

Rashad Apr-15-2014

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@Warsaw Will- I am surprised at your response. I had tried to give an example of the use of "societal". Perhaps if I had said: "the societal indoctrination of people in China", you would have ignored it. But you seem not concerned at the language aspect. You say that you "would prefer to keep this a politics-free zone", but your whole post is about politics. Your post is a mixture of criticism, hypocracy and sarcasm. It is not the sort of thing one wants on a language forum. But I guess you will continue, willy nilly, knowing that you are always right, to attack people who even suggest something you do not like. Perhaps even if I had said: "societal indoctrination of people in China", you would have attacked. I would suggest you go to a politics forum, and leave people interested in language alone, but you probably go to many forums, where you impose your rants.

Rocky Apr-15-2014

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@Rocky - UKIP if you want to, but I think some of us would prefer to keep this a politics-free zone. I could just as well say that Brits have been indoctrinated against the EU by the likes of the Sun and the Mail, but of course I won't. Because this is a language forum.

Warsaw Will Apr-15-2014

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Many of the points made above are valid. I will add points that do not seem to have been made.

Social means to do with people. So, social gatherings. Societal means to do with one or more societies. So, the societal indoctrination of people in the EU.

Rocky Apr-14-2014

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@Rashad - I enjoyed your first reply - it certainly made me laugh a couple of times, and I admire your quiet restraint. In your second one, you're getting there (in my opinion), but I think governmental would be something different altogether.

For example there has been a huge shift in public attitudes in Britain to things like marriage, the family and sexual orientation in the last two decades or so. OK, at local, group or individual level we can call this social change. But it has also has taken place at a societal level, regardless of government policies, influenced or perhaps reflected by civil society, including the media. Politics and the government have tended to follow the trend, not lead it. So I think you can talk here of a societal shift, but not necessarily of a governmental one.

Similarly the change of much of Britain to a multicultural society is a societal change, not a governmental change. Granted government immigration policies might have something to do with it, but it's the attitudes of society as a whole which will make it work or not. For example the general increase in mixed marriages is a societal change, not a governmental one. Yes, it's social change, but it's taking place at a societal level.

Warsaw Will Apr-01-2014

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The King sends out a message that he is looking for an Inventor. The Inventor he chooses becomes a Lord. All citizens are given 24 hours to prepare. One day passes.

Two Inventors now stand before the King.

The First Inventor states: "Last night I made a discovery that will have a huge social impact on our kingdom!"

The Second Inventor states: Last night I made a discovery that will have a huge societal impact on our kingdom!"

The King ponders the statements of the two Inventors, he then raises his hand. "Inventor One, you are dismissed."

As I attempt to better understand the distinction in these terms, I can possibly see an opportunity for some true clarification in an example such as the one above. If "social" is a code word for "interpersonal;" and "societal" is a code word for "governmental," then we've got a bingo moment.

I can accept that "social" for many people simply means interpersonal interactions between distinct individuals, such as saying hello and goodbye when you enter and exit a room. Practicing good manners is an example of a social decision, made solely by the individual on a case by case basis. Breaking it is merely breaking a social rule. No crime is committed, and no jail time would ensue.

Breaking a societal rule is different altogether. Societal rules tend to be represented as written laws and edicts, and likely carry consequences for those who fail to comply with them fully. Societal decisions are those we have collectively established and collectively enforced through a process called "governance."

And thus herein lies my issue with the word societal.

In the example above, the common people of the kingdom stand to gain a great deal from the First Inventor because it would in some way alter the way people would treat one another in everyday interactions. This may or may not eventually provide an indirect benefit to the King himself. This is a "trickle up" type of process. Not a sure thing from the King's perspective.

The King likely recognizes that the second Inventor has a plan that will in some way increase the kingdom's overall power starting up at the top, as he represents the head of society itself.

One inventor generates wealth for the people in a bottom-up fashion, the over inventor generates wealth for the power structure in a top-down fashion. Both are necessary approaches and they do affect one another dynamically. I can see that they may overlap but still remain distinct concepts.

In a word, I think I get it now...kinda

I would still argue that "societal" is not really the best or most specific word, when "governmental" is what societal actually means.

Again, thanks for your time.

Rashad Mar-31-2014

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I enjoyed reading your post. It was quite emotional, and I do apologize if I caused you any sort of distress. The fruit vs bananas argument was hilarious, thanks for that. I'll just accept that I'm a dense Red-neck (takes a lot of sun to redden my a person of color I never suspected I'd live long enough to be called such a thing) because I still don't get why we need this word.

What you don't seem to understand is that I am at least one example of a person who simply still doesn't get it, despite the many examples you think have been so clearly presented in this forum. I cannot be alone, so obviously there is some room for doubt for many people, even if we happen to be a minority.

Bananas vs fruit; lets talk about that for a moment. You present the word "Banana" as a more accurate and specific reference to a type of "fruit," therefore proving the word banana is necessary to the English Language. But if you notice, the word "banana" and the word "fruit" share no common spelling, they do not share the same root, and therefore are nearly impossible to misunderstand when one hears them. One definition does not require understanding of the other. One could describe a banana without knowing it qualified as a fruit at all. and vice versa...One could well know what a fruit is, but not yet be certain if a banana qualifies as one. These terms look different, they sound different, and they are indeed independent of one another, so the logic works as it should and there is clearly a necessity for the word banana.

"Social" and "societal" however, share the same gerund root. Based on your own definition, one cannot appreciate the value of the word "societal" if they do not already understand the value of the word "social." There is a dependence here, which you likely did not notice until I pointed it out. I'm not saying the word cannot be used, I am simply explaining why some people myself included still have a hard time understanding why this word which requires great dependence on another nearly identical word needs to exist in this manner.

The psychological profiling you conducted on me during your post was indeed the most interesting part of the post. You are correct, I personally do not like the word societal. The reason being that I once accidentally invented the word myself during a discussion. Yep, I too have used societal.

Before I knew it, years before I'd ever heard it, my mind had conjugated the word "societal" and used it in a sentence. Right around the time the word came out of my mouth the grammar police in my head started protesting that something about this word didn't seem right. I didn't sweat it, as I assumed I couldn't be the first person to poorly conjugate an adjective during a heated discussion, maybe nobody noticed is what I told myself.

Just because some guy a hundred years ago in a courtroom conjugated an adjective poorly and some stenographer wrote it down doesn't make it proper English today. Examples of words such as "aint," "finna" (short for fixing to), "gonna," "conversate," and a billion others have been used by lots of people in lots of situations, but the words are not necessary to the English language except to indicate some degree of education level by the speaker.

In short, I still don't get it. The words are too similar, and the ground they cover overlaps too much for a simple mind like mine to appreciate the significance. Just like some people think they need the term conversate to specify a short conversation, to me the word converse already covers the ground some people think conversate covers

I'm dumb I get it. I win the Darwin award again, I get it. I still think societal is an unnecessary term in 99% of situations. Perhaps I'm biased, I can concede that.

Anyhow, thanks for talking with me.

Rashad Mar-31-2014

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@Az - It is possible to constructively disagree with someone without insulting them, you know.

Warsaw Will Mar-31-2014

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@Rashad: You're simply incorrect, as has been demonstrated numerous times over the last several years before you posted. I'm convinced you didn't actually read the replies. Providing an example where "social" and "societal" are interchangeable doesn't somehow invalidate the examples provided earlier in which the two words result in two different meanings of the sentence.

I have to know, how did you read these replies and still not understand what "societal" means? How do you think that "social studies" could be accurately changed to "societal studies"? What did anyone say that made you think that it *should* be changed, even if that was the case?

Either way, you either have no idea what "social studies" means, or you still don't have the slightest understanding of what "societal" means; I'll guess it's the latter, since even young children in elementary school know that history is included in social studies, which has no relevance to the term "societal" since it almost exclusively focuses on the actions of individual people and groups smaller than society as a whole.

On a side note, I don't know what backwoods hillbilly village you came from where people couldn't possibly figure out what "societal" meant, but in my experience, people understand it the first time they see or hear it. It is almost completely identical to "society", the only difference being that it has a common adjectival suffix at the end. Not rocket science,

Here's a good example of someone who isn't intelligent enough to understand something, and then draws the even stupider conclusion that it isn't just them: "truthfully no one knows what it actually means". Yes, yes they do. A lot of people know what it means. It seem to primarily just be you that's "confused", as you put it. It certainly isn't everyone. However, I do applaud you for predictably using the word "truthfully" to lead into a provably false statement (the word "actually" would have been accepted as well). It really highlights your linguistic mastery.

Also, "the word societal is generally poor English": No, it isn't. "Generally" or otherwise. You seem to dislike this random word for no reason other than "I didn't hear it from my redneck parents when I was a kid." Cool. Not everyone can have a mastery of the English language. But you have to be several levels of uneducated and self-absorbed to think that's somehow applicable to English in general, or to anyone at all other than yourself.

Before moving on, here's a few more obvious fallacies: "At least to most listeners", "the vast majority of people", "99% of people", and the list goes on. Needless to say: citation needed haha. Hint: There's nothing to cite because you're simply writing bullshit with no substance in order to make some questionable "point" with no regard for truth or reality.

The best part is, you use a few flimsy examples and write your entire post to try to show that in some instances, "social" can be used instead of "societal", but at no time in this whole discussion did anyone ever suggest that "societal" should always be used instead of "social", just when it's more accurate to do so, which means this extremely poor argument you've tried to make isn't even relevant to the topic at all.

Speaking of accuracy, this part of your post is both relevant and pretty funny:

"It becomes an issue of scale more than anything. For me, the word social already encompasses any sort of "shared" experience among people, be it a large group or a small one. I see no issue of scaling, and therefore, see no requirement for the word societal at all."

To respond to this hilariousness:

First, let me point out that plenty of people in this discussion already explained the meaning and correct usage of "societal", and they also defined "social" to include society as a whole *in addition to lower levels of interaction*. It's pretty stupid to suggest the idea that you don't see a problem just because you think "social" includes "large group" (which is something everyone else also "thinks" since it does include large groups, which has been stated many times over several years now, so thanks for not reading any of the other replies before replying).

Second, as was already explained repeatedly, the only problem with scale is that "societal" refers to ONE SPECIFIC scale, and "social" refers to MANY DIFFERENT scales in addition to that other scale. It's a problem with unnecessary generalization, not with scaling the way you've described it.

Third, you yourself pointed out that "social" includes "societal" within its large groups along with any small groups. Yet you somehow missed the problem with generalization and skipped straight to "I see no issue of scaling, and therefore, see no requirement for the word societal at all." As if that's why it exists, or as if anyone suggested that's why it exists before you did. It generally helps to actually address the topic or discussion that took place, instead of disputing some made-up nonsense arguments that no one ever said.

Note: This should have been as obvious to you as it certainly is to anyone else, but nearly no words are "required". We could remove almost any adjective from the language and still communicate without issue. We could even remove "social", just replace it with "interpersonal". That'd be much better because the base word "person" is way more common than "social", plus "inter-" and "-an" make it more obvious that it's an adjective and also what that adjective means. We could probably get away with the word "communal" as well, but I'm guessing you cringe at that word since it's some "bastardization" (

Az Mar-31-2014

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@Rashad - I'm going to play devil's advocate here. My dictionary defines societal as a technical term, and as I imagine that getting on for 99% of people aren't professional or academic social scientists, they would have little or no interest in reading the sort of sociology book where the term is likely to come up.

There are some social scientists, however, for whom the distinction appears to be an important one, and I imagine that they know perfectly well what the difference is. And it's not a replacement; you'll find plenty of examples of both words being used together at Google Books. Here's one explanation of the difference:

"Accordingly, though the term social determinants of health is widely used, here we employ the term societal determinants to refer to the structural forces that affect health. Strictly speaking, the social determinants refer to those factors related to interactions among people and communities, whereas societal determinants emphasize a broader array of structural influences" - Textbook of International Health: Global Health in a Dynamic World, Yogan Pillay, Timothy H. Holtz

This seems to gel with the definition at The American Heritage Dictionary:

"Of or relating to the structure, organization, or functioning of society."

That would be the word that Craig thinks isn't a word, or a word that's less than ten years old. The word that goes back at least to 1907, when William Graham Sumner, the first professor of Sociology at Yale, used it in his book 'Folkways'.

And it goes back even earlier than that, this 'new' word. The Online Etymology Dictionary puts its first appearance at 1873, and sure enough here it is in The Official Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Third Constitutional Convention (Ohio), dated 1873:

"And it is right that it should do so, as it goes down to the very substratum of societal conditions"

But perhaps the best differentiation I've seen is from Michael Mann, professor of Sociology at UCLA:

"Human beings need to enter into social power relations, but they do not need social totalities. They are social, but not societal, animals" (The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1)

In other words, in this technical distinction, social refers to relations between individuals, between members of society, while societal refers to the relationships with the structures of that society. For most of us this is a distinction we don't need to make, but that doesn't mean that it is not an important distinction for some.

I would like to add that I know next to nothing about sociology; this is just the result of a bit of googling and doing a Google Books Search.

All specialisations have little differences like this that are meaningless to the rest of us. For example, I wonder how many people know (or care about) the difference between a historian and a historiographer, between judgement and judgment (in the UK). There are hundreds of thousands of words used by specialists that I don't know and don't miss, but that doesn't mean they don't have a place in the lexicon.

As for using alternative words instead of simpler ones, I could also ask you why you use 'comprehend' when there's the perfectly good 'understand'. In these terms, isn't comprehend just as redundant?

Warsaw Will Feb-28-2014

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Another late comer...
I cringe when I hear the word societal. I've read the above comments in support of this word as a distinction but for the life of me I just don't see why we need the word societal. Social still works just fine.

We took Social Studies in high school, not Societal Studies which by the comments above should have been the name given for that course.

Clearly, it is a bastardization of the word "Society." Most words have multiple forms, such as plurals so that society becomes societies and so forth. Societal is the adjective equivalent to society. Fine. But then the word social covers the same ground already so the word is redundant and therefore distracting during a conversation.

Consider the statements below:
"Teenage pregnancy is a serious social problem."
"Teenage pregnancy is a serious societal problem."

The statements above demonstrate why the word societal is generally poor English. There are those who state that societal somehow elevates issues above merely social ones; almost as if localized problems are considered "social" while national issues are considered "societal." It becomes an issue of scale more than anything. For me, the word social already encompasses any sort of "shared" experience among people, be it a large group or a small one. I see no issue of scaling, and therefore, see no requirement for the word societal at all.

I guess what I'm saying is that for all the explanation above the fact still remains...those of us who have not learned to use societal don't miss the word, it doesn't strike us as something that was missing. We don't notice a vacancy needing to be filled.

People who use the term societal seem to think they need the term to be concise, so they use it which is fine. But what good is the word societal if truthfully no one knows what it actually means? At least to most listeners, the subtle meaning of societal is completely lost and confusing.

"Social" makes plenty of sense to the vast majority of people. If you use social instead of societal 99% of people will fully comprehend what you intend to say without any hesitation. The other way around...not so much.

Rashad Feb-28-2014

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Self disciplined and self controlled group of people with strong family bonding living in a certain area enjoying personal liberties and respecting other’s liberty and freedom with high level of education and information guaranteed by equal chances of economic growth and social security with least possible chance of corruption may cumulatively be called as society and all the ingredients of society may be referred as “societal”.

Abid Hayat Khokhar Dec-31-2013

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Thank you so much for this, Porsche... "But, using a ten-cent word correctly, to reflect some subtlety of meaning, doesn't mean the speaker is trying to look smarter. It means the speaker IS smarter!"

Thank you so much for this, Lingua Sceptica... As ever, the English language evolves and moves itself forward to adapt to its own needs through the creation of a new word/term that improves on that already available.

The greatest strength of the English language is, and has been through many centuries, it's ability to adapt and through evolving be a truly living language.

The term 'societal' may not be liked by the linguist purists but is one that has become necessary over time because of the prevalence and, hence, too broad a use of the term 'social'.

Breaking the use of the two terms down, I would describe 'societal' as being of a 'top-down' 'macro' nature with objectivity and a means to appreciating the bigger picture in its intent, whereas the more subjective and arguably, in linguistic terms, now too broadly used term 'social' is too 'bottom up' and 'micro' to be used as widely as it has been in the past within the intended context.

To proffer an example, asking the question "what will be the social impact be of this social policy" is bettered by asking "what is the societal impact of this social policy".

So, 'societal' equals the means to solve, whereas 'social' is, generally, the problem to be solved.

As ever, the English language evolves and moves itself forward to adapt to its own needs through the creation of a new word/term that improves on that already available.

Without, arbitrarily, drawing a line under this debate, as started by the student of English 1201, was he using the word 'societal' in the correct context?

Lingua Sceptica Oct-11-2012

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More late additions to the discussion!

I would use the term 'social' to describe any issue relating to groups of people within a society. For example, "...there are many social issues which affect the people of London".

I would use the term 'societal' when referring to the existence (or lack of) of 'a society' on the whole. For example "...this example of over exploitation of resources brings to mind the societal collapse of the Mayans".

NJW Oct-08-2012

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I'm from Mexico. The first time I heard that word from a professor in a master's degree seminar (back in 2004), I asked him for an explanation. What he told me was that the adjective "societal" is formed for the conjuntion of 'society' and 'total' in order to mean the society as a whole, as a system, relating to the structure, organization, or functioning of society, what seems to have certain logic.

F Sep-20-2012

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I was also searching for the difference between these words.. I cam up with the finding that.. if you say "social infection ", it might sound like an infection that is social.. whereas.. if you say "societal infection", it sounds like an infection to the society.

navin awal Jul-17-2012

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"Societal" is used by those who think they are smart and educated, which may or may not be a bad thing.
I ain't knocking academia.
Hey, I only play didgeridoos, so what do I know?

Didgevillage Jul-07-2012

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Hm, interesting discussion, although after erading it I'm still not sure whether to use 'social' or 'societal' as a translation of the Dutch 'maatschappelijk' in a letter of reference... 'Social' sounds too general, 'societal' too specific ub the context I am trying to find the right word for.

El Bjorno May-24-2012

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I just want to thank the student whose writing led me to this discussion. I'm enlightened and will hopefully be a little bit more humble in future, and slower to assume my usage is standard, received, official etc. (Just for the record - marking a college paper in Jamaica.)

clyn Nov-09-2011

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I'm a few years late on getting into this conversation, but I wonder if the original poster's professor was from the U.K. too? In my first year of teaching in higher education in the U.S. I'd correct "societal" to "social" in papers because I thought it was just a common mistake (of which there are plenty in student writing, after all). Finally I saw it so much I concluded that it was accepted usage, right or not, and stopped correcting it. Then today, seven years on, I saw it in the New York Times and had to admit that it might even be official usage - hence my Google search to try and work out why I'd never come across it in the U.K.
I can't find much on it, but it was interesting to read the various comments above. I'd note that just because it appears in U.K. dictionaries doesn't mean it's in normal usage in British English. I certainly never saw it in a newspaper or heard it on the radio - though that's not to say that there aren't some academic fields in which it gets used.

majo May-23-2011

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Sociology was only really taking off around 1900. That's probably why 'societal' appears around the same time. Maybe that's why 'societal' also more specifically relates to society in a broad sense. I don't appreciate the comments that any use of the word implies trying to fake intelligence or having a poor grasp of the English language. Thanks Porsche.

Brian3 May-15-2011

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Social means a lot of things, societal from what I see is more limited in its definition. It seems that societal's arrival might be correlated with the popularity of Marxism since it was created circa 1900. Societal is not redundant since it can be used for accuracy and precision. The problem with using societal is that it is perceived by some to be a register change from social, although it is not. Also, if you are in Sociology class you can throw your English dictionaries out the window for this problem and ask for clarification with your instructor or buy a Sociology dictionary, because in this case it could just be a jargon issue.

Jcarpendale Jan-16-2011

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I don't know why so many people have not heard the word 'societal' before, maybe because there are a lot of terms with 'social' in it, for instance, 'social networking'.

'societal' is definitely a word, and I've always heard it. And, most importantly, yes, if you look in the dictionary, you'll definitely find it.

I think porsche is right in saying that social is a more broad-meaning word. And societal is directly related to a society, or the logistics or infrastructure of it. Like, the societal affluence.. it's more like the economics of something.

I think Rebecca is pretty spot-on, as well.

Remember, words go beyond lexical meaning. Since you were taking an English course, that could have had an effect. Words give you a certain picture in your head. If you use social instead of societal, that definitely changes so much. Some words have the exact same meaning. In this case, you would only change up the words for literary purposes. But even in different meanings, there is always a literary use for the selection of words, and that can include having a "formal" way of saying things.

I disagree, spammer katrinka. Maybe that is usually the case, but that is an overgeneralisation, and it is not a rule or even a norm in any way.

@Jon, settle down there. Besides your British pride and whatnot, I don't know how old you are, but 1900 - whether that is correct - is a darn long time ago.

Although I would agree that a lot of US Americans are taught a "poor" version of English in some regards, the people who adopted 'societal' did not have a poor understanding at all. I am not certain, but I'm pretty sure that is was originally a sociological term (whoever invented that was a sociologist). I don't think it matters whether the sociologist is from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, or some other European country and he spoke English.

Michael, no one is saying it is more superior, don't assume such things!

And, Jon, I feel that your "Americans seem to reject English words which have too many uses" theory doesn't explain your 'obliged' example, but thanks for that. I've actually never thought about that. I hope you didn't think I was trying to side with the US Americans; my stance is not like that at all.. I'm not even US American!

Ok, I pretty much only read comments up to Michael, and I'm done, this is quite long!

dbfreak Nov-14-2010

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In a 2010 document -COM(2010)608 - the European Commission makes a distinction:
"In order to strengthen corporate governance and corporate social - and even societal - responsibility, attention will have to be focussed on ... ..."
Whoever wrote that seems to see social responsibility as being towards member of society and societal responsibilit as being towards society.

michael Nov-12-2010

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"He has social issues" vs. "He has societal issues"

One sounds like he has issues with socializing, the other issues with society.

jj Apr-13-2010

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I just used societal in an article where I did not want to use social. The reason was because I wanted to refer to the idea of objective progress in society, and not to a subjective or shared idea motivating that progress, i.e. social progress.

Societal, in my view, takes the politics out of it, which is probably why it is used by social scientists and anthropolgists.

tanko Mar-17-2010

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I always use societal because it makes more sense to me. Maybe because I used social in a different context as a kid. Writing papers in political science, I feel it better describes the point when I write about societal differences. Sorry if I offended anyone. ^_^

Zach Nov-16-2009

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I'm still not convinced that societal is better than social. In the example you cited, I might have referred to the fraternity's community activities being popular with the college. I do agree that there are a number of redundant words that are useful, particularly when writing a piece requiring synonyms to avoid overuse of the same word.

I do enjoy these discussions, regardless of the viewpoints expressed. It's good to know that in this truncated, twittering, technocracy, there are still those who try to say what they mean, and mean what they say!

Michael2 Oct-27-2009

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Jon, Michael, how about this?

"The fraternity's social activities were very popular with the rest of the college community."

Translation: they had orgiastic keg parties that were very well attended and loved by all.

Compare to:

"The fraternity's societal activities were very popular with the rest of the college community."

Translation: they raised money to fight cancer, making everyone on campus proud.

If societal is more specific than social then it's not redundant. Frankly, even if they meant exactly the same thing (which they don't), that would still ok. Where did you get the crazy idea that there can only be one word for something? English is filled with tens of thousands of "redundant" words. They may have different origins, histories, imported into the language at different times. They may differ by a minor shade of meaning. The choice may differ according to context or perhaps be appropriate only in certain registers. This is not worthy of criticism. It's what gives our language richness of expression, poetry. Are you suggesting that there should be no synonyms at all? If I were to use all my fingers and toes, I still couldn't count all the words I know with exactly the same definition that refer to my naughty bits.

Now, I certainly agree, that using a ten-cent word incorrectly does reflect poorly on the speaker. Using a ten-cent word when a five-cent word would do just fine is also generally bad form. But, using a ten-cent word correctly, to reflect some subtlety of meaning, doesn't mean the speaker is trying to look smarter. It means the speaker IS smarter!

porsche Oct-27-2009

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Merriam-Webster lists 'emplace' as a back-formation of 'emplacement', and dates it to 1865 – perhaps a Civil War coinage. 'Emplacement' has a military connotation: a prepared position for weapons or military equipment; M-W dates it to 1802. The use of 'emplacement' in reference to IEDs is A-OK, but unless the books are incendiary its use in a book-bag context is inappropriate.

'Utilize' means "to make use of : turn to practical use or account" (Merriam-Webster). It is inappropriate to ask to 'utilize the latrine' unless the intent is to find a new use for it. (Don't ask, don't tell.)

'Societal' is a perfectly good word, but it is best confined to the social sciences, as a rule. I'm having a hard time imagining how a cadet would utilize it.

I agree with Rob that the use of '10-cent words' to impress is ill-advised. The military has always had its own strain of sesquipedalian lingo. But in the trenches, you can be sure that they revert to "clear, clean, austere English." (Well, maybe not 'clean'.)

douglas.bryant Oct-26-2009

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It also drives me crazy that I can't fix the typo ("It's drives me crazy" should be "It drives me crazy") in the message I just posted.

Rob2 Oct-25-2009

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What an interesting discussion!

I am a history professor at a service academy. I dislike "societal" because it is one of several 10-cent words that people use in failed attempts to make themselves sound more intelligent. "Utilize" (instead of "use") and "emplace" (instead of "place") are other examples. Cadets will ask to "utilize the latrine" instead of just using it. "Emplace" came into the language with Iraqis "emplacing" IEDs on the sides of roads, but now cadets will "emplace" a book into a bookbag. It's drives me crazy.

What I try to pound into my students' heads is that clear, clean, austere English works best. Why use a fancy word when a regular one works just fine?

Rob2 Oct-25-2009

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Thank you so much for your elucidation on this distinction. Personally, I cringe when I hear the word societal, and I'm an American! I have never known of an instance where the use of societal was superior to, or more specific than, the word social.

Michael2 Oct-12-2009

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Baldrige 2009 1.2 Governance and Societal Responsibilities:
Baldrige 2007 1.2 Governance and Social Responsibilities:
societal was not found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
social was found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary at the entries listed below.
social adjective GOING OUT
social adjective SOCIETY =>14 words =>2 words

prasarns Sep-21-2009

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I am from the UK and the word societal is not used here. I have looked it up and societal only came into existence around 1900. I think this is another case of Americans with a poor grasp of the English language making up redundant words. I have read articles by American professors who use the word! It is poor English, but has come into use through repetition. Americans seem to reject English words which have too many uses. Maybe it seems strange to Americans that a word could relate both to ones immediate social activities as well as the interaction of human beings in wider society ... but social covers both of these which means 'societal' is a redundant word. By the way the same applies to the word 'obliged' which Americans always seem to replace with 'obligated' - another redundant word made up by Americans. Americans might say “I have to go to work, I am ‘obligated’ to go there”. All other English speakers (unless taught by an American) would say “I have to go to work, I am obliged to go there”. Maybe obliged sounds too Southern or too Negro (‘much obliged sir’) for professors to use? Maybe social doesn’t sound academic enough?

Jon2 May-13-2008

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historians use social; anthropology and sociology people use societal

katrinka Jan-31-2008

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historians use social; anthropology and sociology people use societal

katrinka Jan-31-2008

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historians use social; anthropology and sociology people use societal

katrinka Jan-31-2008

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I have been wondering about this too. I swear I haven't heard the word "societal" for most of my life but nowadays I hear it ALL THE TIME and I wonder if it is just people trying aspiring to sophistication . . .

Does anyone know a clever and easy way to check word usage over time? Some online corpus or a tool in one of the news sites? It would be neat to see a trend line . . .

dannyman Jul-26-2007

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The odds are, your professor is a purist and sees the word "societal" as jargon or a corruption of the word "social." Many feel the same way about nominalizations (ironically like "nominalization") or buzz-words like "truthiness." I think the lesson your professor is trying to teach is to use simple language and not get lost in what could potentially become a cloud of PC-isms.

mike7 Feb-09-2007

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"societal" is used by people who are afraid of the word "social" because it makes them think of socialism.

bubbha Jan-23-2007

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I agree with most of what has been said. Societal is far more seldom used than social and so it may sound like a buzz word. On the other hand, I do think that both have appropriate uses in different situations, especially if you are writing within the social sciences where semantic distinctions between words like social and societal may be subtle but important. I personally studied anthropology in college, so one of the things that I tried to learn to do was to be able to recognize the difference between words like social and societal (or simple and simplistic, or other similar pairs) and to me, Rebecca looks right on. Social refers to something that has to do with society, somthing societal has to do with the system of society itself. I don't know if that is a great way to articulate it. Maybe Rebecca's words were better. But that's my understanding.

AO Dec-06-2006

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I'd say Porsche has elaborated the distinctions that seem right to me. Societal is first listed in the OED for 1898 in fact. And you have the option of the even older world "societary" with a more or less synonymous meaning. Try that one out on your professor perhaps?!

bubbha Nov-23-2006

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I wonder whether both words have more subtle meanings? "Social" pertains to human relationships and "societal" means having to do with society as a big concept?

Seems as if the two words are both usable.Your professor may have some visceral reaction to elevated language.

rebecca1 Nov-23-2006

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Yes, it is a word, Craig. It's in all of my dictionaries. I just checked a 40 year old dictionary and it has "societal" in it. it's defined as "of or pertaining to society".

Societal's definition is more restrictive, but is roughly included within the wider definition of "social".
The word "social" is a much broader word with more definitions, only one of which is similar (but not identical):
"of or having to do with human beings living together as a group in a situation in which their dealings with one another affect their common welfare."
That could be interpreted to mean a society, but could also mean a family, or any group with a common interest.
"Social" can also just mean friendly and outgoing. "Societal" has no such meaning.

I don't know exactly how you used the word, but if you used "societal" to mean "pertaining to society" then you were absolutely correct. Now, you probably could have used "social", and meant exactly the same thing, but that doesn't mean that societal was wrong.

In some cases, using the word social is ambiguous, precisely because it has so many different meanings. In that case, using societal would probably be preferred for clarity.

I suspect that your professor is trying to prove a different point. He may think you are using buzz words, purposely using flowery prose when simpler words would suffice.
Using societal when just social would do could be considered an example of this. Many people have a pet peeve about using buzz words. His lesson might be that one should express oneself as simply and clearly as possible. On the other hand, if societal was used correctly, then your prof may just have a bug up his ass. Still, in general, don't use a big word when a small one will do.

For more on this check out:

porsche Nov-22-2006

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societal isn't a word. i don't remember it being used ten years ago. i certainly don't remember it being used this much even five years.

Craig2 Nov-22-2006

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Oops... premature submission.

Anyway, Social & Societal are not synonyms in all cases so context could have everything to do with it. Do you have examples?

J1 Nov-21-2006

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Social & Societal are not synonyms

J1 Nov-21-2006

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