Dictionary definitions define the three words:

in a way that they carry almost exactly the same meaning (at least to me as a non-native).

The only difference between “deteriorate” and “aggravate” is that, “aggravate” is transitive, while "deteriorate" is an intransitive verb.

Now, in order to identify the slight nuance between them, I have made two examples; please kindly let me know about the correct / incorrect choices in each example:

  1. The US government officially threatened North Korea last night. I think the political situation is ____________ for them.

    a. worsening
    b. deteriorating
    c. being aggravated

    The three options are the same to me here and work properly.

  2. The noise ___________ my headache.

    a. worsened
    b. aggravated

    Here, I think both words are identical.

I don't know how a native would interpret them.

  • I'd say something can only be aggravated if it is already bad; something that is good isn't aggravated if it is made slightly worse. Not a native speaker, and only a small detail, so a comment, not an answer. Jun 17, 2020 at 7:17

1 Answer 1


"Deteriorate" generally describes change for the worse that is due to an internal or intrinsic situation. The river bank near my house is deteriorating due to all of the rainfall this summer. That is, it (the river bank) is becoming less stable. The deterioration is caused by external forces (the rain falling) but "deteriorate" is describing the internal state of the river bank.

"Deteriorating" is the correct word for the political situation in your example. You are describing the internal condition (of the political situation), though the deterioration is caused by outside forces (threats).

The noise could have either worsened or aggravated your headache. "Worsened" is more passive. "Aggravated" is more alarming. If the noise aggravated your headache, you probably want to take immediate action to remove yourself from the noise. If your headache worsened, it might still remain tolerable.

"Worsened" implies movement along the scale of "better or worse". A change along a continuous scale. "Aggravated" implies a change in its nature. A transformation of some sort. If you worsened a knee injury, you'll need to be careful with that knee. If you aggravated a knee injury, you probably need to change how you use that knee. You probably need to stop using that knee at all.

When something is markedly, substantially, worse due to a specific event or action, I'd use "aggravated".

EDIT: "Worsening" could be used in the first example (political situation). Worsening, here, is less severe. Something that is "worsening" could be made better. "Deteriorating" is losing its internal stability; it might not be reversible.

  • 1
    I have nearly received the answer to my question @Edward Barnard, but I wonder why "worsen" does not work in my first example?
    – A-friend
    Sep 1, 2019 at 12:01
  • 1
    "Worsen" would be a correct word, but "deteriorating" is the better word choice to describe the situation. I edited the answer. Good question! Sep 1, 2019 at 13:20

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