As you know, the word "ordinary" signifies:

not different or special or unexpected in any way; usual.

Also, the adjective "usual" means:

normal; happening, done, or used most often.

The word "typical" means:

showing all the characteristics that you would usually expect from a particular group of things.

And finally, the word "normal" means:

ordinary or usual; the same as would be expected.

Accordingly, it would be difficult for a non-native one to distinguish between these words and know their proper application.

I was wondering how they differ.

Subsequently, I wonder which one is more appropriate in each case below and why?

Example 1:

  • Nowadays, studying in a foreign country is nothing special. It is quite ....... among the youth. Student exchange program is something completely normal.

a. ordinary
b. usual
c. typical
d. normal

I guess they all work here identically.

Example 2:

  • a. The bus is late again!
    b. That's .......... (Said ironically)

a. ordinary
b. usual
c. typical
d. normal

To me they all work here and mean more or less the same.

Please let me know which choice fits / doesn't fit in each provided example?

1 Answer 1


As you say, the terms are all similar, and their definitions are somewhat circular. In many cases they can all be used interchangeably... but in many other cases using the wrong one will make your sentence sound "off" to a native ear. Here are are the nuances that I read into their meanings, at least some of the time:

  • Ordinary means plain or unassuming or undecorated.
  • Usual means happens most often.
  • Typical means exemplary or expected.
  • Normal means common or baseline or (also) expected.
  • Natural means unchanged or unadulterated or matter-of-course.

Of course a good dictionary will likely tell you most or all of these nuances as well.

In your specific examples:

Studying in a foreign country is quite ____ among the youth.

"Normal" is the expected word here. It is not "plain" (ordinary) to study abroad; it is not something that happens more often than not (usual); it is not expected (typical), and not in keeping with the nature of things (natural). But it is something that is done with regularity, something common to do. "Ordinary" and "usual" would also work, I guess, and I suppose even "typical" as well depending on the dialect. But "normal" is the one I would use.

The bus is late again. ____!

Here the only word that works is "Typical!" This is idiomatic usage as an interjection to mean "I wish that things were better, but this bad situation is exactly what I expected." You could sarcastically say "That's unusual!" if you wanted to, but you cannot un-sarcastically say "That's usual!" instead.

  • What meaning does the word "typical" include that makes it able to be used in my second example @radomhead? I.e. What facet of its semantic prosody enables it to be used here?
    – A-friend
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 6:17
  • Typical has to be used with reference to a particular situation or person. It's typical of the bus service to be running late, it's typical of a certain husband to forget his wife's birthday... Your other words refer to things commonly happening in life in general. Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 8:16
  • @A-friend I don't think there's any specific meaning in the word "typical" that's different from the other ones. That's what makes the usage idiomatic. It just is true that you can say "Typical!" in that context but you can't say "Normal!" or "Ordinary!"
    – randomhead
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 14:33

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