What's the actual difference between "fire" and "flame"?

Based on Cambridge dictionary:

Flame is a stream of hot, burning gas from something on fire:

Fire (material that is in) the state of burning that produces flames that send out heat and light, and might produce smoke:

It seems that the "fire" refers to the state while "flame" refers to the result of this state. But in fact, they cannot be used interchangeably? because when I'm thinking about it, I don't necessarily find an difference between them, it's allegedly the same thing, therefore I don't understand why we say "cool flame" rather than "cool fire".

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5 Answers 5


You have answered your own question: a flame does not require a fire; The flame of a candle does not appear from a fire.

A fire need not have flames: a fire can be a pile of glowing embers.

A Flame is the visible portion of the gases of combustion. A flame does not have a finite shape. A fire is the whole process of something that is burning. A fire's area can be defined. Fire (uncountable) is the generic term for the act of burning. Flame (uncountable) is the collective noun for the a quantity of flames.

  • 1
    I find this mostly true, but I would argue that the wick of a candle or the alcohol of a lighter is "on fire." It may not be a traditional campsite or fireplace fire, but it's still a controlled fire that's been set to a particular substance. You may not say it idiomatically, but it's still lexicographically correct. Sep 11, 2018 at 18:54
  • 4
    "a fire can be a pile of glowing embers." ?! To this US English speaker, a pile of embers would never be called "a fire". The remains of a fire, maybe, but not "a fire".
    – stangdon
    Sep 11, 2018 at 19:19
  • @stangdon - For the most part, I agree with you, but It also depends on the context somewhat. For example, if we were making s'mores an hour or so ago, I could see myself telling a six-year-old who is running around, "Be careful around the fire," even if all that's left of the fire is the glowing embers.
    – J.R.
    Sep 11, 2018 at 21:15
  • Sorry, but if you have a fireplace or outdoor fire pit, and there are glowing embers, that can indeed be referred to as a fire. Is there still a fire burning in the pit? Yes, the embers are still red hot.
    – Lambie
    Sep 11, 2018 at 22:27
  • I agree this distinction is marginal at best. If you remove all the flames from a fire, is it still a fire? I don't think this is the case.
    – Andrew
    Sep 13, 2018 at 22:22

But in fact, they cannot be used interchangeably?

In fact, they can't - at least in some cases:

  • The house was on fire (= the house was in the state of burning).
  • The flames were growing higher and higher (= the streams of hot burning gas were growing higher and higher).

I don't really see your problem with the Cambridge definition. Try to use the one instead of the other - it doesn't work, does it?

  • 2
    But you can also say the house was in flames and the fire grew larger.
    – stangdon
    Sep 11, 2018 at 19:20
  • @stangdon you took my words:) Sep 11, 2018 at 19:49

A real fire ("real" as distinct from one that is about to burn out and turn to ash, or one that is only smoldering and has not yet really started) has multiple flames.

The candle flame was blown out by a sudden draft.

The flame of his match went out in the pouring rain as he tried to start the camp fire.

The camp fire had spread beyond the ring and its flames were licking at a nearby hammock.



  • A fire can be thought of as containing one or more flames.

  • A flame originates from a point. A fire originates from an area.

  • If there's a lot of fuel and it will all be burned if no one intervenes, you have a fire.

    • A single flame might be separate from a fire and could dissipate in a short amount of time.
  • Things are said to be on fire, and flames are said to come from or rise from things.

My house is on fire.

Flames are coming out of my window (entire house may not be on fire).

Flame can also uncountably be used to refer to the actual flames of a fire, rather than fire + whatever is burning.

Aflame is synonymous with on fire though.


For the most part, the Cambridge definition is correct when talking about things that are literally burning.

Every few years a massive fire breaks out in the open areas around my city. Although they are miles away, the flames grow so large that we can see them clearly from my house.

Figuratively, the two are more or less synonymous. Flame is somewhat more poetic than fire, and may sound better when writing about strong emotions:

He was shy and never spoke to her, but every day a secret flame burned in his heart each time she passed near.

Since it's inelegant to use the same word more than once in a sentence, writers often switch back and forth between the two, albeit sometimes to excess:

"I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass." -- J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring"

The point is that if Tolkien had instead written,

I am a servant of the Secret Flame, wielder of the fire of Anor ..."

no one would have noticed any significant difference. It just sounds a little better the other way around.

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