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What is the difference between "detonate" and "explode"? Are they interchangeable?

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    typically detonate is what "you do" ("He pressed the button to detonate the bomb.") explode is what a bomb or something else does.
    – Fattie
    Jan 4, 2023 at 18:38
  • @Fattie, That's true unless you are speaking to a science/engineering geek. The geek knows that "explode" means something flies apart in little pieces, and "detonate" is the name of a chemical process that is propagated through a volume of reactive material(s) by a shock wave. (See Michael Harvey's answer, below.) Jan 4, 2023 at 23:42
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    Hi Solomon. For sure, that's totally correct. Just for me, I never, ever, ever mention obscure and/or technical meanings of words on this site, as it is non-English speakers asking basic (and excellent!) questions about normal general English.
    – Fattie
    Jan 5, 2023 at 0:16

10 Answers 10

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The meanings of the words "explode" and "detonate" overlap. In some contexts either can be used. In other contexts only one will be appropriate.

In general "detonate is most often used for an intentional act, or the result of such an act.

(1) The technician detonated the bomb by sending a radio signal.

The word "explode could also be used in sentence (1), but would be somewhat less common.

The word "detonate is most often used when speaking or writing about explosive devices, such as bombs, that is devices designed to cause an explosion. It is also used with substances, such as dynamite, TNT, and nitroglycerine, (and many others) used in the construction of such devices. It is not generally used in things that explode, but were never intended or designed to do so. In particular, it is rarely if ever use in describing mechanical explosions. For example, one might write:

(2) The boiler was overheated, so it exploded.

One would not use "detonate in sentence (2). Similarly one might well write of a "steam explosion", but rarely if ever of a "steam detonation". This Google Ngram shows this difference in usage within the Google corpus.

As always with Google Ngrams, one should remember the limits of this tool. It shows only short phrases in published books and magazines. It will not show instances where they key words occur, but are separated by other words. It notes the publication date of the book or magazine, not the date the text was written. It does not note whether the author was a skilled or unskilled user of English. And so on. But within those limits it can be a powerful tool.

The word "explode" is more general than the words "detonate". In most if not all cases where "detonate". would be properly and naturally used, "explode" could be used by a fluent speaker, and would be understood by a fluent speaker. The reverse is not true.

The word "explode" also has a number of metaphoric or figurative senses. These are in general not shared by the word "detonate". For example, one may explode a myth or a rumor, meaning to demolish it by showing it to be untrue.

(3) That theory is long exploded.

means that the theory has been disproved, and is no longer taken seriously. One would not use "detonated" in that sense.

One can also use "explode" of an organization.

(4) The US Whig party exploded in the first half of the nineteenth century.

This means that then organization dissolved, more or less suddenly and violently, leaving little behind.

A person may be said to "explode", meaning to show sudden and often violent emotion. One would not use "detonate" in such a sense.

An "exploded view diagram" shows an object or assemply with its various parts separated, as if it had flown to pieces. Usually lines or arrows show how these parts relate to one another. One would not write of such a diagram as a "detonated view diagram".

Sources

Explode

Sense 1

If an object such as a bomb explodes or if someone or something explodes it, it bursts loudly and with great force, often causing damage or injury.

Sense 2

If someone explodes, they express strong feelings suddenly and violently.
Do you fear that you'll burst into tears or explode with anger in front of her?

Sense 3

If something explodes, it increases suddenly and rapidly in number or intensity.
The population explodes to 40,000 during the tourist season.

Sense 4

If someone explodes a theory or myth, they prove that it is wrong or impossible.
*Electricity privatization has exploded the myth of cheap nuclear power. *

(Sense 1) To burst with a lot of force and a loud noise

(SENSE 1a) To make something burst with a lot of force and a loud noise

(Sense 1b) To make a sudden loud noise

Thunder exploded over the meadow.

Nouns frequently used as subjects of explode:
 bomb, device, firework, grenade, shell

(sense 2) to express strong emotions in a sudden, noisy, and often violent way

(sense 3) To increase a lot in size, amount, or importance over a very short period of time

(sense 4) to prove that a story or theory that many people believe is in fact false

(sense 5) to move very quickly
A group of youths exploded out of the door.

(I will edit this answer to add additional sources within the next 24 hours)

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    I like that this answer mentions the intentionality of detonation, which is missed in the other top answers. A person smoking at a gas pump may directly cause an explosion, for example, but I wouldn't typically call an accidental or unexpected explosion a detonation. A detonation to me suggests that the explosion was planned, intentional, or controlled in some way. Jan 5, 2023 at 19:44
  • This is the correct answer, and I would also add there is a grammatical different. Detonate is an active verb while explode is passive. You can say "John detonated the bomb." But not "John exploded the bomb". Likewise, you can say "the bomb was detonated" but not "the bomb was exploded". Minor exception is that detonate can also be used passively. E.g. "The bomb exploded." And "the bomb detonated". But the reverse is not true: "Tell John to detonate the bomb." Is correct while, "tell John to explode the bomb" is not.
    – uberhaxed
    Jan 5, 2023 at 21:31
  • @NuclearHoagie I think there’s room for unplanned detonations, but that doesn’t make what you say untrue. I’d just limit it to sentences in active voice and with a person (or other entity able to show intent) as the subject: “John detonated the bomb,” “We will detonate it at midday,” versus “The bomb was detonated prematurely,” “Heat caused the fertiliser to detonate.” Jan 6, 2023 at 4:28
  • @uberhaxed One can say, and people do say "John exploded the bomb" althogh not as often as "The bomb explored. But "The bomb disposal team exploded the bomb safely" is a very common usage. Jan 6, 2023 at 18:45
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detonate is something you do or a thing does. It means to cause to explode.

detonate means to set off. It means: to "light the fuse" and make it explode. It refers to doing something to a detonator (lighting it, hitting a switch) so something blows up or explodes.

They detonated or set off the bomb near the border.

When the bomb was detonated [by them], it exploded.

A bomb explodes if it is detonated.

Explode is often used as metaphor: They exploded with laughter.

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    @sepehr This answer is correct, but it’s a typical rather than universal distinction. You can say “explode a rocket” (= cause an explosion), and equally you can say “the bomb detonated”. But typically I find the words used the way Lambie says. Jan 4, 2023 at 4:53
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    @sepehr That sentence is about a frightening thing. Explosion or explode is more emotional. Detonate is a calm more scientific word -- often planned and known in advance. Jan 4, 2023 at 14:45
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    @sepehr - Your exploded rocket example is poorly written, which may be the cause of the confusion. The sentence should read, There was a huge bang as if a rocket had exploded outside. No one exploded the rocket. The rocket, instead, exploded. People are free to misuse the language as they see fit but it's not useful to base assumptions or poor usage. I know it's OED but..... I can say, I exploded a firework in my hand, but that is wordy and sounds weird. Better to say, A firework exploded in my hand. Most will know who lit it.
    – EllieK
    Jan 4, 2023 at 15:24
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    @EllieK-Don'tsupporther Beware of writing off a usage as wrong just because it’s not in your idiom. I wouldn’t use “explode” transitively either, but I would understand it, and I don’t doubt that OED lexicographers are documenting a genuine usage. As for your “in my hand” example, your objection seems to be about the choice of structure rather than word choice. Would you object to I set off a rocket in my hand as wordy, too? Jan 4, 2023 at 16:14
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    @DarrelHoffman to explode a diagram is "technical", not metaphorical. An exploded view is very common in architectural drawing. But thanks! :)
    – Lambie
    Jan 5, 2023 at 21:29
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In informal usage, many people will see no difference between 'detonate' and 'explode', and may use them interchangeably. Ordinary dictionaries often state that 'detonate' means e.g. 'explode or cause a bomb to explode'.

However, there is a formal or technical difference, which will be known to some people, including current or former military personnel, people who are trained chemists, employed in mining, demolition, etc, or those who have studied military history with a focus on weapons and ammunition, or those who are curious and moderately widely read. The following is a brief description of the formal difference:

There are two kinds of explosives, low explosives, and high explosives. What decides to which group a particular material belongs is the speed at which the explosive chemical reaction moves through the material.

Only high explosives detonate.

Low explosives such as gunpowder deflagrate rather than detonate. The reaction speed in the explosive material is generally from 600 to less than 900 metres per second. As the chemical reaction proceeds, a large volume of hot gas is produced, which expands outwards and causes damage.

High explosives detonate. The reaction speed (detonation velocity) in the material is greater than 1500 metres per second. This is higher than the speed of sound in the material. The reaction proceeds through the material as a shock wave. Some high explosives include nitroglycerine (3000 to 6000 metres per second), and dynamite (similar speeds). A much greater volume of hotter gas is produced, and also an atmospheric shockwave. High explosives are much more destructive. In general, the detonation has to be started by some external effect, such as a small amount of specialised explosive in contact with the high explosive.

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    While a neat fact, I don't think this is how most speakers distinguish the two words. Jan 4, 2023 at 4:43
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    @AzorAhai-him- Maybe not, but I think most people do have a sense that detonate is a subset of explode: more violent maybe, or restricted to bombs. And the question didn’t specify a request for common vs technical distinctions! Jan 4, 2023 at 5:38
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    @TimPederick I upvoted it, but this is ELL and I think it's important for the OP to know that probably 99% of speakers aren't gonna go "um actually, that's a high explosive" when they refer to something has having "exploded" not "detonated" Jan 4, 2023 at 15:38
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    @AzorAhai-him- the transitive use of 'explode' is not 'questionable': [intransitive, transitive] to burst (= break apart) or make something burst loudly and violently, causing damage (Oxford Learner's Dictionary) Also Macmillan and Merriam-Webster. Jan 4, 2023 at 16:47
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    This is jargon, not common usage.
    – user253751
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:05
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They’re synonyms, but there are a few subtleties. The most important is that detonation is a secondary explosion of something like a high explosive that would usually be safe to handle. A detonator is a charge of primary explosive that is needed to detonate another, more stable, explosive.

Detonate can be used in two ways.

  • Transitively, where the direct object is the thing that explodes and the subject is what makes it explode: “A hydrostatic pistol [...] detonated the charge.”
  • Intransitively, where the subject is the thing that explodes: “a U-boat's pressure hull would not rupture unless the charge detonated within about 15 ft (4.6 m)”

Explode is normally used in the second way. Something explodes. A transitive usage exists, but is much less common and more informal. To put some numbers on it: In Google Ngrams, “the device exploded” is twice as common as either “the device detonated” or “detonated the device,” which are used equally often. It is fourteen times more common than “exploded the device.” Furthermore, all the matches for “exploded the device” from before the late twentieth century are false positives (such as, “... exploded. The device ...”). Neither “he exploded the device” nor “they exploded the device” are in the corpus of books, and “he detonated the device” is. However, I have heard “exploded [something]” in spoken American English.

The word detonate also is normally only used for a powerful explosive that needs some specific procedure to ignite. For example, a modern artillery shell that requires a firing cap either explodes or detonates, but a cannon with old-fashioned black powder or a pocket of combustible gas can only explode, not detonate. This isn’t always rigorously followed. Again, to put some numbers on it, in Google Ngrams, “charges exploded” is only 78% more common than “charges detonated,” or “dynamite exploded” only 38% more common than “dynamite detonated,” but “gas exploded” is nearly 43 times more common than “gas detonated,” and things like “black powder” or “chemicals” either “explode” many times more often than they “detonate,” or “detonate” so rarely that it isn’t in the corpus at all. I would guess that “detonate” is used more loosely in speech than in books, but I still recommend that you use “detonate” only with high explosives.

Explode also has several other figurative meanings that detonate does not, such as “rapidly increase” (intransitive) and “discredit” (transitive). For example, the expression “explode the myth” is common.

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    'Explode has a standard transitive meaning (just as 'burst' does); that is, one can explode something: literally e.g. an explosive device - Bomb disposal experts exploded the device under controlled conditions - figuratively one can explode something to show that something is not true, especially something that people believe: At last, here is a women's magazine to explode the myth that thin equals beautiful. Jan 4, 2023 at 10:49
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    The first sentence fragment is poorly written. Please revise. (Too small a change for my rep)
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 4, 2023 at 12:49
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    You're forgetting about exploded image schematic drawings. Explode includes the concept of the object being pulled apart into smaller pieces. Detonate does not include this concept.
    – David S
    Jan 4, 2023 at 16:09
  • @DavidS Explode has several other definitions, including “rapidly increase.” I didn’t mention them, but perhaps I should.
    – Davislor
    Jan 4, 2023 at 20:58
  • @CGCampbell Oof. Not sure how that slipped past me in editing. Thanks for pointing it out.
    – Davislor
    Jan 4, 2023 at 21:01
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Detonate is used specifically for bombs and other mechanical explosives. For example, your balloon exploded when you popped it because it isn't a bomb.

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    I liked the pie example better than the balloon. I say balloons “pop” or “burst”, not explode. But I will definitely say my food exploded in the microwave if heating caused it to erupt and spray all over the inside of the appliance! Jan 4, 2023 at 4:54
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    Possibly worth knowing that eggs explode in a microwave
    – mcalex
    Jan 4, 2023 at 5:25
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    To clarify - there are two possible classes of explosion: mechanical or chemical. Mechanical explosions result from an excess of pressure, such as a steam boiler, or a balloon. Only a chemical explosion would normally be referred to as a detonation.
    – MikeB
    Jan 4, 2023 at 10:45
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    @MikeB - I wouldn't call nuclear fission a 'chemical' process. The HE 'explosive lenses' made of Baratol created a converging spherical shockwave which compressed the plutonium pit to make it critical. The initiator provided a supply of extra neutrons at the right instant. Once the Baratol had done its job, the remainder was physical/nuclear. Jan 4, 2023 at 14:07
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    Even though they explode, you don't detonate a pie or an egg in a microwave. You only detonate bombs.
    – iBug
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:02
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Explode is more general than detonate. That is, all detonations are explosions, but some explosions are not detonations.

A detonation is specifically a chemical explosion (and in technical use, means a high-explosive reaction that travels by shock wave, as Michael Harvey's answer explains).

There are other kinds of explosion which are not detonations, including:

  • volcanic explosions that happen naturally at the surface of the Earth,
  • fuel tanks blowing up or pressure vessels bursting,
  • exploded diagrams of systems (where the parts are shown separated from each other),
  • low-explosive chemical reactions such as rockets and fireworks,¹ and
  • uncontrolled nuclear reactions, such as atomic bombs² and the Chernobyl accident.

Also, explode is used in figurative ways (a sudden increase, or an eruption of rage) where detonate cannot be substituted.


¹ Note that "detonate" can be used non-technically for low-explosive munitions.

² Atomic bombs also contain high explosive, and that is detonated to begin the nuclear fission (so we can use "detonate" for the bomb as a whole).

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    indeed also it's common to describe a person "exploding" (ie, yelling)
    – Fattie
    Jan 4, 2023 at 18:40
  • In common usage, any bomb explosion is a detonation (and also an explosion). The difference between detonating and deflagrating is technical jargon.
    – user253751
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:06
  • It's funny how something so simple now takes off in all kinds of technical directions. The main point is that a person or setting detonates a bomb and a bomb explodes when detonated. That is the semantic usage. That's also what a learner needs to know.
    – Lambie
    Jan 4, 2023 at 22:38
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    @Lambie, because the question didn't mention bombs, it seemed unwise to limit the answer so narrowly (I would expect more detonations today in mining, quarrying and demolition than in warfare, for example). Since the question is concerned with whether the two words are synonyms, I'm focusing on the differences - all detonations are explosions, but some explosions are not detonations (and the level of formality/technicality affects which). Jan 5, 2023 at 8:15
  • Come on. That was to show usage. Yes, there are explosions of dynamite in mining etc. Sure. But the same idea is at play: They detonated the explosives in the mine shaft.
    – Lambie
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:47
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These are the main/relevant definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary:

detonate: [UK] (cause something to) explode [US] to explode, or to cause a bomb to explode

explode: to break up into pieces violently, or to cause something to do this

Both Cambridge Dictionary and Merriam-Webster identify a transitive use (to make something explode) and an intransitive use (to explode). Both dictionaries offer several other usages of explode, but no other usages for detonate. As other answers state, there are specific technical meanings for each word, but these are outside the scope of an answer to this question.

In UK English, detonate is quite a formal word: it's not something you would use in casual conversation.

We can check on actual usages using an NGram graph of "detonated/exploded on" (intransitive, to explode) and "exploded/detonated the" (transitive, to cause to explode). As you can see, exploded is more widely used in both cases, but the difference is small for the transitive use and considerable to the intransitive use: this suggests that explode is generally preferred for the intransitive use. The same applies in both UK and US English. Note that NGram graphs relate to written English, which is generally more formal: I would expect fewer occurrences of "detonate" in spoken English.

It is clear that the two words have the same meanings but are not interchangeable. I would recommend using "explode" for both meanings in spoken English. In written English, "explode" is still preferable, but the transitive meaning of "detonate" can be also be used. For technical writing, I recommend further research before using either word.

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Detonation is the act of initiating, or starting, an explosion.

If all goes well (or badly) an explosion is the result. However, it is also possible for the explosive matter to fizzle out, with a much smaller bang than expected, even if the detonator worked perfectly.

One example is an engine running on the wrong (too high octane) fuel. The engine can "detonate" also called knocking or pinking,where the fuel ignites with a shock wave (at the speed of sound), rather than a gentle flame started by the spark. That only affects the fuel/air mixture in the cylinder, so while the shock increases wear and eventually damage in the engine, the engine doesn't generally explode.

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If the words explode or detonate are used colloquially, they can be synonymous.

However, a detonation in technical circles has to do with the speed at which the explosive shock wave moves. This is better explained on the Wikipedia page for detonation.

And while this is for "English" language learners, I would also like to point out that the American Heritage dictionary notes the origin of the word 'detonate' meaning to thunder.

And if you think about, thunder is part of lightning, the other part is the flash. (Sound, the thunder, being slower than light, the flash.)

The Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries, for some reason, do not show this distinction.

So teaching learners the different contexts, colloquial or technical, is still absolutely valid. Which is why I believe Michael Harvey's answer is correct.

-5

Absolutely synonymous and either may be used freely to express identical meaning.

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    -1 I must rather strongly dis agree with this answer. "explode" and "detonate" are words of closely related meanings, but they are not synonyms, and in some situations cannot be used interchangeably. In some cases they can. These differences are general (although not universal) differences in usage of these words. This answer is incorrect. Jan 7, 2023 at 22:50

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