http://grammarist.com/usage/empathy-sympathy/ exemplified:

The government must not mistake the empathy we feel for Denise Fergus’s loss with sympathy for her views. [Guardian]

I can't distinguish empathy vs sympathy in this sentence. My divination of:

  1. empathy is that the Guardian understands and feels for Denise Fergus's loss.

  2. sympathy is that the Guardian pities Denise Fergus's loss, but still spurn or reject her views?

  • 1
    Yes, your guesses are right. They basically tell her: "We feel for your loss, but we do still not like your opinions" – oerkelens Oct 31 '14 at 7:02

They feel empathy for her loss, but do not sympathize with her views. (Sympathize: Oxford Dictionary Def #2: agree with a sentiment or opinion.)

In the quote, The Guardian says nothing of sympathy/Definition#1 ("pity, compassion, understanding") because the expression of empathy is, itself, a heartfelt sympathy. (That is, a heartfelt "pity, compassion, or understanding".)

It could be inferred that they do not agree with her views, but their expression is deliberately softer. I think "spurn" and "reject" are too strong an inference here. In various contexts, such a wording might simply mean they want to remain officially neutral and don't want to take sides in the political matter.

  • +1. Thanks, but I don't understand your dictionary references in brackets? What's the source? Why did you cite (Google Def 1 pity, compassion,understanding) twice? In para 2, the second time where you used this defn, are you referring to empathy or heartfelt sympathy with this defn? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Nov 20 '14 at 8:21
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Nov 20 '14 at 8:22
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit, I've updated the Answer to help clarify your questions. I also found out that Google definitions is using Oxford Dictionary, so I referenced Oxford Dictionary directly. – CoolHandLouis Dec 10 '14 at 5:59

To empathize in this case is to appreciate someone's emotion. Empathy in a more general sense is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand what they are feeling.

In this usage, it means that we, the public, feel for the victims of crime; we are capable of understanding their pain and loss.

To sympathize, as it is used here, means not just to appreciate someone's emotion, but to share it. This meaning is often used in compounds such as a "Communist sympathizer": this is a term used to mean someone who, while not themselves a communist, thinks that they may have some good ideas.

In many cases, sympathize can also be used to mean much the same thing empathize means in this context. The words are close enough in meaning that people are only likely to use them together when they intend to draw this exact distinction: they understand and appreciate someone's pain, but they do not agree with their response to it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.