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Let's suppose someone has a goal and they work on achieving that goal. Would it be idiomatic to say:

He is purposeful.

He is motivated.

Do these two phrases mean the same? If they don't, could you please explain the difference?

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Either of those phrases would be idiomatic, and both could apply in that situation, but they don't mean something.

Purposeful means "full of purpose" (more or less), or more naturally that something is done with purpose. A purposeful action is an action taken to achieve a (useful) purpose. It's also the name of a particular leadership technique, but that is irrelevant. If a person is purposeful, then the general trend of their choices in life is to act towards a purpose; the meaning has developed, however, to characterise the determination and persistence that people tend to have when they are acting towards a purpose that is important to them. Thus, saying he is purposeful will generally be taken to mean that has a goal and works towards it with determination.

Motivated means "having motivation" (except when it's motivated by, in which case it is describing the specific motivation). Like purposeful it has then developed to describe the characteristics of strongly motivated people - hard working and determined. Thus, he is motivated will tend to mean that someone is driven, hard working, determined, that there is some thing or things that cause them to work hard.

Thus, the difference in meaning is subtle, but noticeable.

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  • Thank you very much for the answer! In the first part of your answer you're talking about a purpose as if it were a goal. But a purpose and a goal are different things, right? May be you could clarify this detail a little?
    – embedc
    Mar 19, 2019 at 15:26
  • A purpose and a goal are closely related, but not entirely interchangeable. In some usage, they are interchangeable. Essentially, a goal is general something that is discrete, defined and at least theoretically achievable - to retire by 40, say, or even to end world hunger (though that's very theoretical). A purpose might be achievable and finite, in which case you could also call it a goal, but it might not be - to help others, for example, which is not achievable because it never ends. And even with that apparent distinction, people will still use one for the other anyway.
    – SamBC
    Mar 19, 2019 at 15:33

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