While memorizing vocabulary, I found something very odd:the fact that while the word 'compel' has a negative feeling to it (because you are 'forcing' someone), the word 'compelling' has a positive feeling to it (because it 'evokes interest'). The question here is, since the word 'compel' is a verb, the word 'compelling' was expected (at least for me)to mean "something that compels", which is weird because if the word "compelling" actually meant, "something that compels", then the word "compelling" should carry on the negative feeling of the root word "compel"....

Is it just an exception that the word "compelling" and "compel" have (somewhat) opposite feelings? Or is there an underlying concept or rule for this?

Furthermore, I`m assuming that stating something that is very interesting as "That thing is compelling" is correct, but saying "That thing compels me" is incorrect. Is this true?


2 Answers 2


Compel has more of a neutral meaning than a positive or negative one. So does compelling.

For example, you may feel compelled to dye your hair blue because all your friends are doing it, but you may also feel compelled to comfort a child who is crying.

Evoking interest is not necessarily a positive thing, either. For example, if someone is inciting a riot (perhaps with the use of compelling arguments), he is evoking interest in rioting.

If someone finds an argument to be compelling, it means that it compels him to agree with it. For a (rather silly) example, if someone is skeptical that he will burn his finger if he touches a hot stove, someone else might show him a burn scar on his own finger from having touched a similar stove, and argue that his finger is similar enough to the skeptic's that the skeptic can expect a similar result if he does the same.

The skeptic might then say that that was a compelling argument, or he might say that he was compelled to agree. They would have basically the same meaning.

If he didn't find the argument compelling, he might then feel compelled to touch the stove to satisfy his curiosity about what happens. Probably only once, though. :)

  • I know it's very late but thank you for the response! :)
    – Danny Han
    Nov 24, 2022 at 5:38

+1 to Bob Rodes excellent answer. Let me just add a couple of points.

"Compelling" can also be a routine verb. "The government compels me to pay taxes." "The government is compelling me to pay taxes.

"The meaning of the adjective "compelling" is related to the verb "compel". If something "compels" us to be interested, than it is "compelling". As Bob Rodes notes, a "compelling argument" compels us to agree with it.

This isn't the only word with this kind of shift in meaning that shows up across parts of speech. Perhaps the most striking example is the word "terrific". Originally "terrific" was the adjective form of "terror": something that causes terror is terrific. "That monster causes terror. That monster is terrific." But somehow the meaning of "terrific" shifted from "causing terror" to more generally being strong and powerful and then to being great, so now "terrific" means more like "something that is very impressive or very good".

Likewise "awful" used to mean "inspiring awe", but now it means "really bad".

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