I cannot differentiate the listed words below:

  • Wail
    to make a long, high cry, usually because of pain or sadness, or to make a sound like this

  • Mourn
    To feel or express deep sadness, esp. because of someone’s death

  • Whine
    If you whine, especially as a child, you complain or express disappointment or unhappiness repeatedly

Please consider that, in many dictionaries, they have not been dedicated for a specific purpose while they emphasize by the adverbs "usually" and "specifically" in their definitions; hence, I don't know whether using each one in a particular case would be natural or not!

For instance, I don't know which choice would be more idiomatic and natural in each case below:

(First scenario) (informal case)
A: Why are you ____________?
B: Oh, you don't know how much my leg hurts.

(Second scenario)
A: Did you know that Ana's father passed away last night.
B: Seriously!!! What a catastrophe! I'm really worried about her! Have you heard of her since morning? Is she OK?
A: She is not OK at all!! Keeps sitting at home crying and ____________

(Third scenario)
- Last night, I couldn't sleep whatsoever! A cat was lying down on the wall ____________ just behind my sleeping room's window.

  • mourning aka grieving
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 16:41

2 Answers 2


Wailing is crying loud and long. (Or, by metaphor, some similar sound.) It's a little archaic; normally you say crying instead.

Mourning = grieving: being upset because someone died. (Or, by metaphor, some other tragedy.) It's an emotion, not a sound, although it probably involves crying a lot. It probably lasts for months or years.

Whining can be a sound, in which case it's high-pitched and thin and usually not loud. A noise from insects or machinery may be described as a whine. But when it's used for a person, it's insulting and dismissive: someone who's whining is a child, and their complaint is not justified, and they're only pretending to be upset. You'd never describe someone who's mourning as "whining".

In your first example, none of these words is likely. Whining would be insulting: "Why are you complaining for no good reason?" Wailing sounds archaic here, and mourning doesn't make sense. "Why are you crying?" is more likely, but a native speaker would probably say "What's wrong?".

In your second example, Ana is mourning, but the last sentence is about what she's doing, not how she's feeling. Also, it's introduced with "keeps ___ing", which implies a repeated action — and mourning is a continuing state, not repeated. So you probably want wailing. (It overlaps with crying, but that's OK.)

In your third example, the concept is crying loudly, so wailing is the right word.

  • Thank you @Anonymous; just in order to come to a conclusion, could you please tell me whether using wail in my first scenario souns so archaic that hearing it would make people I'm talking in shekespear time? :) I mean if it sounds quiet odd that I have to avoid using it?
    – A-friend
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 10:04
  • 1
    I agree with everything here, except maybe the part about whining being "unlikely". (Although I completely agree that, if used, whining would be meant more as an insult than a question laced with empathy; whining is rather common as a synonym for "incessantly complaining.") @A-friend - Yes, you are correct; don't use wail unless you want to sound Shakespearian.
    – J.R.
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 10:20
  • 2
    Wail isn't that archaic. I'd use it if the meaning is particularly appropriate: if the person's cries are particularly long and loud. But if they're just crying a little, the meaning would be wrong.
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 10:23
  • 1
    For your first scenario, it would be unlikely someone was wailing about a hurt leg. They might be whining or whinging, but asking them that would be pretty rude, and show them you don't really think anything is wrong with them.
    – Showsni
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 10:26
  • 1
    @Showsni: "beating her breast", not "breasts". This expression uses the old sense of breast meaning chest, not the new one meaning mammary.
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 23:08

'Wailing' is a loud cry of anguish, of mental pain, such as that of a distraut mourner at a funeral.

'Mourning' is a state of being, it may be entirely calm, respectful and dignified, or it may involve wailing etc.

'Whining' is what little children do when they can't get their way, or what a dog does when it is locked up. It also covers similar behaviour by adults, which may be vocal or written.

Only 'Whining' fits with your first scenario.

Only 'Wailing' perfectly fits your second scenario, but in general she is "in mourning".

Your third scenario probably needs a different word, but possibly 'whining' might fit. Neither of the other two fit at all.

  • Right, whining can only go in 1). But it could be considered insensitive. I do think one can say that a cat is wailing. More expressive is: mewling or the charming word, caterwauling. :) I also think you can say to a kid, Why are you wailing? If you are what I call a "literary" speaker.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 16:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .