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Compel vs. impel

A person who is impelled has been persuaded to do something (perhaps based on moral grounds) and does so at least partially of his or her own volition. Compel implies that the person being compelled has no choice in the matter and is being coerced. For the person being compelled, the coercion is so strong that choice and morality don’t enter into it.

Examples

Surely we won’t need a third cataclysm to impel us, at long last, to take serious action? [Weekly Volcano]

Schwarzenegger then sought a court order to compel Chiang to honor the order. [Reuters]

The bridge-burning effect is the underlying fear that seems often to impel journalists not to print unflattering information about their sources. [The Daily Athenaeum]

He stressed investigators cannot legally compel anyone to talk. [The Chronicle-Telegram]

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Comments

  1. I’ve often used the phrase “I am compelled to…” when apparently I should have said “I am impelled to…” So, I cannot say “my conscience compels me?” The term, impel, just has an odd sound to my ear.

    I only know one language — English — and apparently not that good.

  2. Chris Johnston says:

    Usage disagrees with this post; otherwise, how could one have “a compelling argument”? If this were true, that would be incorrect, and it would be “an impelling argument”. It seems usage for a long time has indicated that “compel” also can include mere persuasion.

    • unheardvoice says:

      “A compelling argument” is one in which the listener has no choice but to agree, morality and will aside. An “impelling argument” would be a persuasive one, in which the listener is motivated into acting a certain way by choice.
      Think of a compelling argument as “an offer he can’t refuse” and an impelling one the whole of Marc Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar :)

      • Chris Johnston says:

        If that were the case, the word “compelling” would be incomparable. But hearing a “somewhat compelling argument” or “what you say is very compelling” doesn’t seem unfamiliar or unnatural. The fact is, usage for some time has been very comfortable using “compel” in a figurative sense pretty much equivalent to “impel”.

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