I am learning the word "materially".

Materially: 3. To a significant extent or degree; substantially. (thefreedictionary) https://www.thefreedictionary.com/materially

What is the difference between "materially" and "substantially"? Since I see "materially" used a lot in legal/accounting contexts, is "materially" more formal than "substantially" ?

Here is my research, but it is in a legal context.

The difference between 'substantially' and 'materially' would need to be tested in the courts. We could end up with a bit of a process in the courts, in the making of that determination. Although Senator Xenophon says that 'materially' is understood to be a lesser threshold than 'substantially', there would be a legal argument as to whether that was the case . From https://www.australiancompetitionlaw.org/legislation/2011ccla.html

Here are a few sentences containing "materially' from The Corpus of Contemporary American English

  1. Red Hat said the transaction should not materially affect results of its second quarter, ending August 31,

  2. but neither moonlight nor the strong twilight of this season will materially affect the observation of these brilliant meteors.

  3. spending money to influence the outcome of referenda unless the issues involved in the referenda materially affected the corporation's property, business, or assets.

  4. We said so when Apple did it last year, and nothing has materially changed to alter the facts for HTC.

1 Answer 1


In a legal context a "material" and "materially" are technical terms that have very specific meanings. A material breach in a contract is one that justifies cancelling the entire contract, not just getting money damages. A material misstatement is one that may be a fraud if it works harm (and is reasonably relied on). Material testimony is relevant to the subject at issue in the case. Most, perhaps all, things which are material in a legal context will also be "substantial" in the ordinary sense of that word. But by calling it "material" one is making a legal conclusion that the thing has certain legal effects, and falls into a particular legal category. Calling it "substantial" does not imply that legal status.

In a non-legal context, "material" and "substantial" (and their adjective forms) are pretty much synonyms. I am having trouble thinking of a case where something is "material" but not "substantial" or the other way around. Both originally implied "physical" and are now fossil metaphors for "physical". Both are opposed to "minor" or "trivial".

  • The relevant ("legal contexts") entry in the full OED first defines material as Of evidence or a fact: significant or influential, esp. in having affected a person's decision-making. Which is presumably the normal sense in British "legal jargon", because they continue with (U.S. Law) - having a logical connection with the facts at issue. That second definition is obviously a much weaker assertion of relevance, as Senator Xenophon points out. But exactly the same distinction should be recognised by any competent native speaker, even if they don't know the legal usages. Jul 12, 2019 at 14:49
  • @FumbleFingers in a law dictionary or legal text you would find a much longer definition of "material" which has several different specific meanings in different specific legal contexts. The "affecting decision making" part is mostly in a misrepresentation or fraud context, the "logical connection" part is in connection with the admissibility of testimony, particularly in a jury trial. Neither covers the "material breech" sense of contract law, and there are other specialized senses as well. All of these apply in both UK and US law, although somewhat differently.
    – David Siegel
    Jul 12, 2019 at 15:08
  • That's as may be - I have no real interest in the niceties of legal definitions. I was simply making the point that the substantive distinction (in all contexts, not just legal ones) between materially and substantially is perfectly accessible to native speakers without the benefit of a legal background. Jul 12, 2019 at 15:34
  • @FumbleFingers I must be missing something, because I don't see in your comment any contrast between "materially" and "substantially". In fact, I don't see you saying anything about any definition of "substantial". I see in the question the quote from Senator Xenophon that "materially" is a lower threshold, but I don't see any support for that, and I don't agree. I may well be wrong, or overlooking something, because you usually make good points here.
    – David Siegel
    Jul 12, 2019 at 15:46
  • I've no idea if Senator Xenophon has a legal background, but for the purposes of my (apparently, unclearly stated) argument in the first comment, there's no reason why we should assume he does. My point was and remains that we can completely ignore any "legal" distinction here - not forgetting that in practice, "legal distinctions" almost always turn on distinctions available to all competent mainstream native speakers at some point in the past (usually when a law was first written, or when the first relevant "test case / legal precedent" arose and had to be formally dissected). Jul 12, 2019 at 16:09

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