“Sway”, which basically means to influence, differs from the latter word [(“influence”)] in implying both the pressure or control of some force that is either not resisted or is in itself irresistible, and resulting change or fluctuation in character, opinions, or decisions of the person concerned.

the notion . . . of capricious deities, swayed by human passions and desires, was incompatible with the idea of fixed law

other conditions than those of classroom have swayed him for good or evil

he is swayed by fashion, by suggestion, by transient moods

Source: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms

I don’t get what the difference is between “sway” and “influence”, even with the explanation above.

  • What is "the latter word"? Your question is not clear. Sway has a number of meanings. All of the examples you seem to be citing fall under the meaning "to exert influence upon" (Did my argument sway you?) or "to be influenced by" (Were you swayed by my argument?).
    – TimR
    Oct 7, 2014 at 16:56
  • Same here. Your question would be better if you give blocked off examples, followed by your specific concerns and question.
    – user3169
    Oct 7, 2014 at 17:42
  • @Tim Based on context within the source provided, I believe the latter word is “influence”. I’ve edited nima’s question to make that more clear. It seems that M-W’s editors are making a distinction between these two words based on the presence or absence of a difficult-or-impossible-to-resist force and the nature of the resulting changes. Oct 7, 2014 at 19:30
  • @user3169 I’ve rectified the formatting issues that were obfuscating the examples nima was quoting and clarified the specific concern. Oct 7, 2014 at 19:32
  • Nima, once again I must ask you to take better care with the formatting of your questions. Transcription errors and lack of use/mention distinction aside, you should at least know by now how to begin large, block quotations with > to set them apart from your question. Please make some effort in this regard or your questions will continue to confuse others and may be closed. Oct 7, 2014 at 19:41

3 Answers 3


As verbs, sway and influence are remarkably similar in meaning. In some contexts, they are interchangeable. In other contexts, they are not. For example:

The lawyer tried to sway the jury.

The lawyer tried to influence the jury.

My initial reaction is that sway has a neutral or slightly positive connotation (the lawyer tried to persuade the jury); while influence has a neutral or slightly negative connotation, and suggests a range of possibilities from persuasion to unethical conduct. But my initial perception could easily be swayed or influenced with more context.


The verbs sway and influence are synonyms. synonyms have the same meaning but all synonyms are not necessarily interchangeable. So is with these verbs. The objective of these verbs is the same i.e. to cause a change in somebody else's behaviour, feeling, purpose or a course of action, but the way how the change is caused is different.

The verb sway is usually used when effects or changes are caused in a direct way such as persuading or convincing the other person by our speech, arguments, actions, etc. On the other hand, we normally use the verb influence when the changes are caused in an indirect way or by means of outside factors such as wealth, high position, fame of somebody or hig quality of something, etc. The following are some examples that will clear the use of these verbs:

1- Don't be swayed by his false promises.

2- His clever talk swayed her.

3- The decision to appoint this accountant was influenced by the chairman.

4- His writings are influenced by Shakespeare's.

5- His riches influenced his selection as a parliamentarian.


One can ask, Were you swayed by his argument?, and the question would mean "Were you convinced?" One could also ask, Were you at all swayed by his argument? and the question would be "Has he succeed in bringing you any closer to his opinion on the matter?"

Ideas can "hold sway", that is, they can be the prevailing view.

A person can be under someone's sway, which would mean that the person was so heavily influenced by the other person that he had no volition of his own.

A country can be under the sway of another country, which would mean that the elected officials of the first country were obedient puppets of those running the more powerful country.

To be under someone's influence is the same as being under their sway, but in that case the operative word is under. Usually, the ability to influence another is not the same thing as having them under one's sway. To influence means to have some impact upon events or people, but not to control them.

  • The OP's question uses sway and influence as verbs, while much of this answer uses them as nouns. Does that matter? Oct 7, 2014 at 20:54
  • 1
    The first part of my answer showed a verbal use, where the underlying meaning is persuasion. The noun forms show examples where the underlying concept is strong influence sometimes to the point of control. The verb can have either of these meanings, but more often the verb means to persuade, and the noun is used for heavy influence/control.
    – TimR
    Oct 7, 2014 at 21:03

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