What are the differences between misuse and abuse?

This is what is listed for misuse in the dictionary:

Verb: Use (something) in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose.

Noun: The wrong or improper use of something: "their misuse can have dire consequences".

And abuse:

Verb: Use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse.

Noun: The improper use of something.

Is there any general difference or does it depend on the context?

I always have trouble to recognize which one to use.

I am also interested in how the word is used in the other context like law and crime.

  • What do you mean by your recent edit? I don't understand what you are asking for.
    – Daniel
    May 10, 2013 at 19:37
  • What matters? I don't understand what you mean by "grounds of humanity, legal, and sociological subjects." Can you give an example of a situation where you are wondering about their use?
    – Daniel
    May 10, 2013 at 19:47
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    We'd all love it if it were obvious that people had done some research in the dictionaries before coming here and posting to ask for clarification, but in many cases it's not obvious at all (or worse, it's obvious that they didn't do any research; that's why questions get closed as "general reference"). Including some detail about "here's what the dictionary said, here's what it doesn't address, and that's why I'm still confused" helps tremendously in focusing the answer on your real issue.
    – Hellion
    May 10, 2013 at 22:17
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    (In this case, since the second definition of abuse (at m-w.com ) says "misuse" and the second definition of misuse says "abuse", it's clear that there's plenty of potential overlap. :-) )
    – Hellion
    May 10, 2013 at 22:21
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    @PersianCat: Your caveat "on the grounds of humanity,legal and sociological subjects too" is excessively broad (remember: questions on ELL must be reasonably scoped as per our FAQ). You might want to narrow it down to something like "I am also interested in how the word is used in the context of narcotics (drugs) and relationships", which would match your answer.
    – Matt
    May 11, 2013 at 0:54

6 Answers 6


"Misuse" has a generally less severe connotation than "abuse." Abuse would usually be something that someone does intentionally or without regard for consequences, while misuse is more likely to be unintentional.

The meaning is the same in the humanities, sociology, legal studies, and all other fields.


The two can be used synonymously, but there is generally a difference at least of degree between them, and often of intended meaning.

To "misuse" is "to use incorrectly". For example, if you take a screwdriver and try to use it to paint a picture, you are misusing it; the screwdriver is not designed for painting, and will not do a good job when pressed into that service, but neither the paint, the picture, nor the screwdriver will be damaged as a result of your action.

To "abuse" is "to use excessively or damagingly". For example, if you take a screwdriver and try to use it to pry up a manhole cover, you are abusing it; although a screwdriver can often be used to pry up small objects, a manhole cover is much too large for an average screwdriver and you are likely to end up with a bent, damaged screwdriver and an unmoved manhole by the time you give up.

In terms of sociology, as @Daniel has also said, the usage is essentially the same, although I'd say you are much less likely to encounter the word "misuse" in this context (or if you do, it is entirely synonymous with "abuse"). If an employer makes his workers engage in a dangerous action without taking appropriate safety precautions, he is abusing the workers ("using them in a way likely to cause damage"), even if they don't actually get injured.

  • 3
    The damage may not be to the item being used, as well. For example, using a screwdriver to open a car door - it might work, but will destroy the lock. May 10, 2013 at 18:48
  • 5
    @GalacticCowboy, that is very true. In that case I might be inclined to say that you have misused the screwdriver and abused the lock. :-)
    – Hellion
    May 10, 2013 at 18:51

The two words are NOT synonyms of each other in general conversations, as you have suggested. The examples you give actually illustrate the differences mentioned by the others who have replied.

Misuse is far less serious than abuse. Misuse may be a mistake, but could be intentional. Abuse is almost certainly intentional and may have serious consequences.

In your examples:

  • Drug misuse is when you use a drug for the wrong purpose, either by mistake or intentionally.
  • Drug abuse involves misusing a drug to such an extent that it becomes addiction and "willful habit". Then it is abuse.

Hence, as in other general usage, abuse is more serious than misuse.

You're correct that misuse is not generally used in talking about relationships, because you don't usually talk about misusing a person. But abusing a person is serious.

I repeat, your examples of usage of the words in connection with drugs and relationships are merely illustrating - or extensions of - the more general differences, albeit that they have generally accepted fairly specific meanings in those fields.

  • Your answer doesn't add a new thing to above answers. You are judging my answer in your answer so your answer is not a real answer. Furthermore, misuse and abuse are synonyms generally but not in the specific matters as I explained in my answer. May 11, 2013 at 1:02

Try a word, "deliberately.". I was ended up on your posts because I was trying to answer the same question. As you said, according to dictionaries, they are synonymous. But practically, we weigh much more severalty on the word, abuse, than misuse.

This is not linguistic definition but, for example, in the field of Justice against domestic violence or intimate partner violence, we use the word, "deliberately," when we define abuse.

As some of other sources saying, abuse is an use of something with the deliberate intention for improper purpose. So often misuse can happen without the caution of consequence while abuse often happens with a clear acknowledgement of consequence. It's easy to understand why many abuse-rs can get away with consequence.

You can also say abuse means to use something by manipulating it's function for improper reason.


In short, misuse is when someone is doing something wrong but he actually don't know that i am using it or doing it in wrong way that means misuse is unintentional while abusing is wrong use (misuse of something) intentionally.


People above sent good answers however It was not enough and complete. I searched more and could find that these two words are synonyms of each other in general conversations but should not to use them in the matters on the grounds of law,crime and sociology because they imply different meanings which may have serious consequences if you apply them incorrectly. For example:

1) Drugs:


Drug misuse is when you use a prescription drug for a purpose other than the one for which it was prescribed. A great example of this is using psychostimulants prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder for weight loss. Psychostimulants help individuals who have attention deficits focus more easily by stimulating certain chemicals in the brain responsible for concentration. Because of the intense focusing on tasks at hand, this drug is prone to misuse because individuals find that the stimulant keeps them focused on tasks they are doing while keeping hunger signals at bay.


Drug abuse is when you become addicted to the effects of a prescription that has been misused. For example, psychostimulant misusers are prone to become abusers when they get addicted to the stimulant's effects and therefore need to take higher doses more often to achieve the same effects. Drug abuse happens when an addiction to the misused drug is formed. Drug abuse carries a much bigger chance of endangering the health of the abuser

Or here:

  1. Drug misuse is the improper use of medications for purely therapeutic gains but does not include the improper use of drugs taken for pleasure and the like.

  2. Drug abuse is a more repetitive and willful habit of taking drugs for the purpose of pleasure, ecstasy and euphoria but does not include the repeated use of drugs for therapeutic purposes

2) Crimes related to the Relationships

I found that abuse in relationships means rape,beating,psychological violence,financial and emotional charging but misuse is meaningless.

  • 1
    If your question had specifically mentioned drugs or relationships instead of "humanity,legal and sociological subjects," we could have commented on those particular areas instead of trying to guess what you were asking about. In either case, the distinctions you have drawn when talking about drugs and relationships are no different than the distinctions between the two words in any other context.
    – Daniel
    May 12, 2013 at 16:22
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    I think the reason for the downvotes is because 1. The claim that "misuse" and "abuse" are synonyms in regular usage is incorrect and 2. The distinction that you draw for the cases of drugs and relationships is exactly the same as the distinction between the words in regular conversation as given in the two most upvoted answers above, so actually it's this answer which does not add anything to the others.
    – Daniel
    May 12, 2013 at 16:30

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