What is the difference between the synonymous words: yowl, howl and wail?

Based on dictionaries, these too similar words overlap in meaning as below:

1) If a dog or wolf howls, it makes a long, sad sound
2) to make a loud sound, usually to express pain, sadness, or another strong emotion.

- To make a long, high, unhappy cry, usually when hurt or fighting.

- To make a long, high cry, usually because of pain or sadness.

For instance, I cannot distinguish the following sentences from each other:

  • The wolf / dog is yowling.
  • The wolf / dog is howling.
  • The wolf / dog is wailing.

  • He was yowling in pain.

  • He was howling in pain.
  • He was wailing in pain.

Please explain me what is your taking on each case?

Meanwhile, please provide me with some examples where each word can be used uniquely so that I could differentiate them.

Thank you


Howl and yowl aren't generic words for cries; they're specific sounds made by specific animals. Howling is how wolves and dogs call to each other (it's a social thing), like this. Yowling is a sound cats make when fighting or courting, like this (it's a different sound from a meow).

Howl is also used for other similar sounds, but yowl is seldom used for anything but that specific cat sound; if it's used for anyone else, it implies they're acting like a cat.

A wail is a prolonged cry of sadness, especially one that varies in pitch (kind of like a wolf's howl, but wail is not used for that). It contrasts with a sob, which is a short cry that's repeated. (It also used to be a common word for crying in general, but that's archaic.) Both wail and sob are normally used for humans, but wail is also used for similar sounds made by animals or even machines.

So wolves howl, but don't yowl or wail. Cats yowl, but don't howl or wail (unless they're crying in an unusual manner). Sad humans may wail and sob (but the usual word is cry); humans in pain will may cry out or scream or maybe howl (if it's loud and full-throated), but not yowl.

Typical uses:

  • The wolves aren't howling at the moon, they're howling at each other.
  • The cats were fighting, with a lot of hissing and yowling.
  • A famous cliché: there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth (which means crying and grinding of teeth)
  • My cat howls, sometimes in the middle of the night. But he's old. – Andrew May 7 at 15:35

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