Grammar Compel vs. Impel |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Compel vs. Impel

Both compel and impel contain the idea of using physical or other force to cause something to be done.

Compel means to constrain someone in some way to yield or do what one wishes.

to compel a debtor to pay
Fate compels us to face danger and trouble.

Impel means to provide a strong force, motive, or incentive toward a certain end.

The wind impelled the ship.
Curiosity impels her to ask questions.

It might help, in some instances, to think of impel as the carrot and compel as the stick.

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32 responses to “Compel vs. Impel

  1. Jim Hoppe says:

    Within and Without:
    The motive force comes impelled from within or compelled from outside one’s self.

    It is redundant to say both “It might help” plus “in some instances”.
    It helps to think of impel as the carrot and compel as the stick. It really does.

    • pat says:

      Jim-the two are not mutually exclusive.It might help in some instances-not all,perhaps?

    • Joe Bicknell says:

      In that case, the above example “the wind impelled the ship” is incorrect, since the wind is an external force to the ship. The wind actually compelled the ship, but this is a different meaning of ‘compel’ since the ship could still resist the wind even though it is an external force.

      • JP Simons says:

        Actually the wind “pro”pels the ship, the sail is “com”pelled by the wind to move the ship.

    • Dave says:

      It is redundant indeed. In asserting that it “might” help, the writer is acknowledging that it will not help in all instances, or else it would have been phrased “will” help. Inasmuch as it will not help in all instances, it necessarily will help only in some instances. Thus, “might” help in “some instances” is redundant.

  2. Andrew says:

    Carrot? I don’t see what you’re getting at with this analogy. How about compel is the gun and impel is the dollar?

  3. cecmiami says:

    I see it this way:
    Impel would refer to a person being strongly motivated to take aggressive action. A parent’s love for his child and desire to protect the child could impel the parent to interfere with professionals who are trying to help the child, teachers etc.

    Compel would refer to someone being forced to do something against that person’s will.

    How’s that?

    • Those are good examples.

      • Victoria says:

        This last reference really helped me a lot. “Impel would refer to a person being strongly motivated to take aggressive action.” Where as “Compel would refer to someone being forced to do something against that person’s will.” Thank you cecmiami!!

  4. Dixie says:

    Loved your carrot and stick analogy!

  5. Skip Harris says:

    I have heard the term (and used it myself) “compelling proposition” or “compelling offer” as in: 12 months of High Speed Internet, Digital Video and Home Phone service for only $49/mo from Cox Cable is a very compelling offer.

    In that case I have presumed compelling was describing an “incentive” (carrot) and not a stick.

    What am I missing in you analogy of carrot vs. stick?

    • In your example the word compelling is an adjective meaning convincing or requiring urgent attention. The analogy doesn’t work the same way when you are using an adjective form as it does with the verbs compel and impel.

    • Tikken says:

      I would interpret this way:

      A stick (compel) represents a “move-away-from” motivation.
      A carrot (impel) represents a “move-towards” motivation.

      As people tend to respond *better* to one of the 2 forms of motivation, both are often used – unless the motivator already knows the target mark’s situation.

      Some example situations which could be compelling (could compel the recipient)
      – needs service and has cheaper/similar cost service but needs better/more features
      – needs service and has service, but it costs too much
      – needs service yet has no service, for it costs too much

      An offer meant to compel would be one in which the consumer is trying to move out of the current situation (a stick).

      An offer meant to impel would be one where the consumer does not mind the present situation, but sees potential of a better situation in the proposed offer (a carrot).

  6. Timothy says:

    Could it also mean one is an external force and the other an internal force? Eg. Displaying an act of kindness out of a good heart, opposed to being forced to obey a law saying “you must be kind to this person”.

    • We suppose you could say that impel is the internal force and compel is the external force in some cases. However, in the example sentence “The wind impelled the ship,” the ship does not have an internal force.

  7. Dorcas says:

    The wind propelled the ship. Impel is an internal force.

  8. loz says:

    Impulsive behaviour comes from within and is desirous while compulsive behaviour is forced by the threat of negative consequences.

  9. John says:

    It appears impel would be more appropriate when describing the irresistible urge involved with motor tics. However, tic disorders are often associated with compulsive disorders. Both are driven from within

  10. edwin says:

    Impel and compel should both be considered as the emotion attached to the reason why you performed a certain action. Hence, it is logical to believe that there is some emotion attached to both words. Both could be considered as possessing a motivational force. A coming to terms as it where. For example, If upon hearing of Jesus promise of everlasting life in the kingdom of god motivates you to preach that message to others then you are impelled to do so. On the other hand if you have been the victim of, or a witness to, any form of crime which affects you to the point of taking preventive or corrective action, then you are compelled to perform that corrective action. As for the word “propelled”. The word “propelled” could be used as a noun and an adjective. Say, in describing the manner in which an action was conducted. “She propelled herself, into her work” or As in a physical force, “The strong winds propelled the ship forward.”

  11. Zlatan Racic says:

    Both, impel and compel are associated with emotion and therefore with person or people (humans). The same words are improperly used when dealing with an objects (e.g a ship).

    • Although one of the definitions of impel is “to urge or drive forward or on by or as if by the exertion of strong moral pressure,” that is not the only definiton. Impel is also defined as “to impart motion to.” Likewise, there are multiple definitions of compel, not all dealing with emotion.

  12. --pell says:

    Wouldn’t the wind PROPEL the boat? Impel implies an internal force, no?

  13. Auburn says:

    I’m writing a letter to someone and confused on which mpel word would apply.
    “This has been on my mind for weeks now, and I just feel (compelled or impelled?) To try to gain some clarity on it.”

  14. Valerie A Gordon says:

    Can’t someone be compelled to do something good and therefore it’s not a stick but a carrot? For instance, a poet or writer compelling us to understand a poem, story?

    • says:

      Applying the definition, we can see how someone might feel passively compelled to do something, as in I felt compelled to tell the truth. We might also feel compelled to understand a writer’s poem or story, but if the writer is directly compelling us (“forcing, driving, subduing” us), we would hope it is with a low level of aggression.

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