Empathy vs. Sympathy | Definition & Examples

Empathy and sympathy are related words that differ in meaning. Though they’re often used interchangeably, they differ in the kind of emotional involvement they describe.

  • Empathy is a noun describing the ability to relate to another person’s feelings by imagining yourself in their situation.
  • Sympathy is a noun describing compassion for another person who is facing difficult circumstances or negative feelings. It suggests that you feel pity for someone but don’t necessarily fully understand their feelings.
Empathy in a sentence Sympathy in a sentence
Empathy is an essential trait for a therapist. I have sympathy for Jane’s struggle.
Carl’s response showed no empathy. Kevin has no sympathy for the less fortunate.
Bill is a sensitive and empathetic person. Neil seems to be very sympathetic.
Note
Different sources often contradict each other about the connotations of the two words. Sometimes, sympathy is taken to mean a distant or patronizing form of pity, or empathy is described as an intellectual rather than emotional understanding of someone’s feelings.

This article describes the difference between the two words as they are normally used.

The meaning of empathy

Empathy refers to the ability to imaginatively experience another person’s emotions or thoughts. The emphasis is on relating to another person’s feelings, whether intellectually or by connecting them to your own experiences: putting yourself in their shoes.

Example: Empathy in a sentence
Paul showed a lot of empathy for his students, really understanding their motivations and fears.

The verb form of empathy is empathize, meaning “to experience empathy for someone or something.” It’s commonly followed by the preposition “with.” The adjectival form of empathy is empathetic (or sometimes empathic).

Example: Empathize and empathetic in a sentence
As an empathetic person, Scott found it easy to empathize with Alicia.

Sympathy to mean compassion

Sympathy is typically used to describe compassion or pity for another person’s negative feelings or circumstances. It suggests that you feel bad for them, but not necessarily that you fully understand their feelings (though it doesn’t exclude this possibility).

Example: Sympathy in a sentence
The doctor showed no sympathy for her patient when she gave him the bad news.

The verb form of sympathy is sympathize, meaning “to experience sympathy for someone or something.” It’s commonly followed by the word “with.” The adjectival form of sympathy is sympathetic.

Example: Sympathize and sympathetic in a sentence
Although everyone else seemed sympathetic to Matt, you didn’t seem to sympathize with him.

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Sympathy to mean unity

Sympathy can also be used to describe something as working in harmony or in unity with other components. It’s preceded by the word “in.” Sometimes an adjective is added between the words for emphasis.

Examples: In sympathy in a sentence
The cogs of the machine worked in sympathy with one another.

Each department of the office worked in complete sympathy with the others.

Sympathy to mean loyalty

Sympathy can also be used to describe a state of loyalty or a tendency to support a certain idea or group. In this context, it’s written in the plural form.

Examples: Sympathies in a sentence
Angela seems to have democratic sympathies.

As a young man, he had socialist sympathies.

My (deepest) sympathies

My sympathies is an expression commonly used to offer condolences to someone experiencing loss or grief. My deepest sympathies is a common variation of the expression. Either expression can be used on its own or as part of a sentence.

Example: My sympathies in a sentence
I would like to offer my sympathies for your recent loss.

Ursula offered her deepest sympathies to Terence.

Worksheet: Sympathy vs. empathy

Do you want to test your knowledge of the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”? Use the practice worksheet below! Fill in a form of “empathy” or “sympathy” in each of the sentences.

  1. Sandra’s parents are also divorced, so she feels a lot of _______ for Dajana.
  2. Tyra has a lot of _______ for people struggling with poverty. She donates a third of her income to charity.
  3. To _______ with someone is to imaginatively experience their feelings.
  4. The townspeople worked in _______ with each other to extinguish the fire.
  5. I have neither Republican nor Democratic _______.
  6. I expressed my deepest _______ to the widow.
  1. Sandra’s parents are also divorced, so she feels a lot of empathy for Dajana.
    • Here, “empathy” is the more appropriate option, showing that Sandra can understand Amy’s feelings because of a similar experience in her own life.
  1. Tyra has a lot of sympathy for people struggling with poverty. She donates a third of her income to charity.
    • Here, “sympathy” makes the most sense. Tyra feels compassion for the people she’s trying to help, but there’s no suggestion that she knows what it feels like to be in their situation.
  1. To empathize with someone is to imaginatively experience their feelings.
    • The present verb form of “empathy” is “empathize.”
  1. The townspeople worked in sympathy with each other to extinguish the fire.
    • Here, “in sympathy” is used to mean “in harmony” or “in unity.”
  1. I have neither Republican nor Democratic sympathies.
    • Here, “sympathies” is used to mean “loyalties” or “allegiances.”
  1. I expressed my deepest sympathies to the widow.
    • “My sympathies” and “my deepest sympathies” are common expressions used to offer condolences to someone experiencing loss.

Other interesting language articles

If you want to know more about commonly confused words, definitions, and differences between US and UK spellings, make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations, examples, and quizzes.

 

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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.