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What's the difference between flexible, pliable, and bendy?

Oxford definitions for pliable, flexible, and bendy:

pliable: easily bent; flexible

flexible: capable of bending easily without breaking

bendy: (informal) capable of bending; soft and flexible.

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While "pliable" seems like it might mean the same thing as "flexible", it adds the nuance, "easily bent by someone or something". The result is that "flexible" is the more common term used in a variety of contexts, and "pliable" is used to refer more specifically to things that are manipulated.

Since "flexible" can mean either the object bends itself easily or can be bent easily, it is the choice for sentences like:

The flexible dancer could put both her feet behind her head.

The software is flexible enough to be useful in a variety of applications.

Meanwhile "pliable" is the better choice to describe the manipulation of materials or objects:

Copper wire is more pliable than fiber-optic and can be easier to use when running cable through tight spaces.

Compared to oak trees, the willow’s branches are pliable, tending to bend gracefully in a strong wind instead of breaking.

Both can be used metaphorically, but note the difference between these two sentences:

The young students' opinions were flexible enough that they would frequently change when presented with contradictory facts.

The young students' opinions were pliable and easily influenced by the images and opinions they saw in popular media.

The first suggests that the students would change their own opinions, while the second suggests that the students' opinions were changed by somebody else. Note that "pliable" doesn't have to be a negative, but since it suggests manipulation it often has negative overtones.

(Edit) "Bendy" is a colloquial term that is roughly equivalent to "flexible". You would not want to use it in any formal writing, but otherwise it can be substituted in any of the above examples. Because it is informal you may want to set it off with quotation marks.

Copper wire is more "bendy" than fiber-optic cable and is good when running cable around tight corners.

  • Thanks for your answer. Could you please provide a reference for your statements? Incidentally, don't you think this is a better question to be asked in English Language & Usage website? – Diamond Jun 7 '17 at 18:15
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    You're welcome to ask over at ELU, but I expect you will get a similar answer. As for references, I would just say look at the example sentences that occur in various dictionaries (eg merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pliable) and note the consistencies in how the words are used, not just what the definitions say. – Andrew Jun 7 '17 at 18:48
  • @user3257464 I agree with Andrew's intuition, though OED doesn't make it quite clear enough. Here are what I think are the most relevant senses for pliable, adj. 1: "1. Easily folded, bent, or shaped; flexible, supple; ductile. ... 2. fig. Flexible in disposition or character; easily influenced or directed; docile, compliant, adaptable, submissive." For "flexible, adj. and n.": "Capable of being bent, admitting of change in figure without breaking; yielding to pressure, pliable, pliant." – Luke Sawczak Jun 7 '17 at 18:50
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    @user3257464, Luke's comment raises another distinction. Pliable is often used to mean easily shaped, like talking about a material like clay. Flexible refers just to bending if you're talking about the ability of materials to change shape. – fixer1234 Jun 7 '17 at 20:32
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As such, the two words have similar meanings and implications. The two are equally interchangeable in terms of usage, but flexible is much, much more common as compared to pliable. Word usage of pliable and flexible, provided by Google Ngram Viewer

This is a graph based on data from "lots of books", as per Google Ngram Viewer. It can also be viewed on this link. The difference between pliable and flexible is, therefore, only in terms of common use and not any other factor.

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    Yes, "flexible" is more common, but you fail to explain why. Also, even though they are synonymous there is a difference in nuance. – Andrew Jun 7 '17 at 18:40
  • Thanks for the feedback. I had read a similar post on The English Language StackExchange, and written my answer similarly. Here's it's link: english.stackexchange.com/questions/44673/… – AbhigyanC Jun 9 '17 at 2:19

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