• Water is essential for living things.
  • Getting enough sleep is essential to mental health.

These examples are from Cambridge dictionary. According to both Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries, “essential to/for something” both exist and seem to be interchangeable in the examples the dictionaries give. Cambridge dictionary, Oxford dictionary.

So I’m wondering if there is any nuance between them?

  • Add a link to the two dictionary entries, (in the question) and please include the definitions, so users can save themselves the bother in checking for themselves.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 14 at 14:15
  • You need to provide examples. Please stop posting contextless questions. to and for are used in utterances, full on utterances. Also, the function word to and the preposition for are not always used the same way.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 14 at 14:31

2 Answers 2


In most contexts there's no difference between essential to and essential for.

The possible nuance of difference is that to can identify something that is essential = intrinsic, inherent, central, such as...

Faith, hope, and charity are essential to Christianity
(for would be "weird")

...whereas for only ever implies essential = necessary, required, mandatory, as in...

Most biologists believe water is essential for life
(to is a stylistic choice with equivalent meaning)


The Cambridge Dictionary has this:

essential for Water is essential for living things.
essential to Getting enough sleep is essential to mental health.

for=for the purpose of
to = used to apply the adjective essential to mental health (see below)

The Oxford Learner's Dictionary has this:

essential to something Money is not essential to happiness.

essential for something Experience is essential for this job.

essential and happiness are linked by money meaning-wise
experience applies to this job.

for= for the purpose of
to= happiness, a function words that shows that makes essential apply to happiness

Merriam Webster says of to (among many uses):

a —used as a function word (1) to indicate the application of an adjective or a noun agreeable to everyone attitude to friends title to the property

essential to a person

It is essential to work hard. One must do that.

*It is essential for work hard. [non-grammatical]

It is essential for hard work.

There is something you need that is essential when doing hard work.

Right there, you can see they are not always the same.

Okay, so with my edit I will now say this:

Money is not essential for happiness means: for happiness to occur you don't need money.

Money is essential to happiness means that the thing is or is not a part of happiness.

  • Ignore the dv. I show with my examples they are not always the same.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 14 at 17:09
  • +1 but you need to make this a bit clearer. Wasn't my dv.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 14 at 18:11
  • It was my dv. The OP asks about to or for as prepositions before a noun. Contexts involving to as an infinitive marker before a verb are not relevant to the question, imho. Commented Jun 14 at 18:51
  • @FumbleFingers That's easily fixed.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 14 at 19:21

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