Grammar Chaos: The Meanings and Feelings of Sympathy, Empathy, and Apathy

Posted on Jun 20, 2018

How do you know if you’re feeling sympathy, empathy, or apathy for another person? Keep reading, and we’ll tell you how!

Children Hugging

By nature, we as human beings are social and compassionate, capable of feeling a whole range of emotions toward one another. We can go from caring deeply about a person’s emotions to not caring at all. But what does it mean to sympathize with someone during their time of need or to empathize with them while they’re suffering? These terms may sound alike, but they couldn’t be more different.

To start, sympathy is defined as an “inclination to think or feel alike” or “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.” One can sympathize with another person by sharing that person’s emotions and understanding how they feel without necessarily stepping into their shoes.

  1. The funeral attendees offered their sympathies to the mourning widow.

  2. Her sympathy for the poor drove her to run a charity fund.


Next, empathy means “the action of... vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another... without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” The key phrase here is “vicariously experiencing.” Empathy is a bit of a notch up sympathy because it entails one person to understand another person’s emotions by feeling as if they’re the other person themselves. Note that it’s possible for someone to sympathize with someone else without empathizing with them.

  1. When I read her biography, I felt nothing but empathy for her and her beliefs.

  2. I empathize with your sorrow and wish I could do more for you while you’re down.

Empathy Quotes

Lastly, as opposed to both sympathy and empathy, apathy is simply defined as the “lack of feeling or emotion,” synonymous with being indifferent or impassive. Simply put, instead of wearing the other person’s shoes, an apathetic person would just ignore the shoe rack and keep walking.

  1. He was apathetic to the plight of his countrymen during a time of war.

  2. Their apathy toward the event resulted in a lukewarm reception.

No emotion

The root of all these words is the Greek term pathos, related to the evocation of pity or compassion, especially in the arts. Just as pathos brings out the most intense emotions from us all, so do we tend to understand or at least try to understand the feelings of others. So the next time you feel uncertain about what sympathy, empathy, and apathy mean, we’ve got your back!

Aching for advice on grammar and writing? Head on over to the Grammar Chaos series at the 1-Hour Proofreading blog!


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