I understand from dictionaries and web research that both terms can mean capable, of a person. Do they tend to carry other important meanings in this sense?

Is competent used often enough in daily life that it's useful to learn? Is it particularly formal, colloquial, strong, or literary?

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    We ask that you consult a dictionary about word meanings, and ask here only about what specifically the dictionary leaves unclear. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 0:37
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    In fact I did looking for a dictionary and a web search. It is easy to understand the meaning, but it is different to understand the subtle meanings. For example, smart, clever, intelligent, and wise are all similar in dictionary. But in real life scenario, they can be different. Another examples are dirty, filthy, and disgusting. If one use these words incorrectly, one may end in a fight. I hope my explanation helps.
    – Superuser
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 0:44
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    Oh most importamtly, somehow I rarely see this word, competent. If it is a rare or big word, I will only learn it, read it and will not use it in daily conversation. A dictionary indeed cannot tell a foreign learner that much.
    – Superuser
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 0:55
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    But "competent" and "competitive" aren't anything similar. They're not synonyms.
    – Catija
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 2:00
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    Competent refers to baseline adequacy for a role; competitive refers to ones ability or desire to win a competition of some sort. They aren't completely dissimilar, but they aren't close synonyms and their dictionary meanings really are straightforward. Neither word is unusual or rare in any way. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 3:42

3 Answers 3


Competent and competitive are both used to characterize someone as at least adequately qualified or suitable for some role or position. Competent focuses more on the skill level itself, while competitive, in this sense, marks someone as attractive enough to be selected for (or "winning") some role or position.


having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. "a highly competent surgeon"

Oxforddictionaries.com competent


As good as or better than others of a comparable nature: a car industry competitive with any in the world

Oxforddictionaries.com competitive

Competitive makes more explicit that such a situation involves a comparison between the person described and others in a contest for such a position or role, while this idea is implicit in competent (someone can't be sensibly considered good or good enough at something if no one, at least in theory, is not good or not good enough for that thing).

Should you upgrade or develop new skills that would make you more competitive in the job market? --Baby Boomers and Their Parents

Both words can be used to indicate a relatively wide range of strength or degree of positive evaluation, but both of them generally indicate at least an acceptable degree of skill, capability, potential, or desirability. The dictionary I've cited here gives pretty good information on how competent can be graded as more or less positive. We tend to use very and highly to intensify both of these terms.

Competent is a useful word to know. It is one of the 7,500 most common words used in English. See the Macmillan Dictionary's entry for competent for more on this. Especially note that it is a red word there, and you can click What are red words? on the page for more information.

In some situations, competent can carry a negative connotation, as in He's not a great architect, or even a good one, but I suppose he's competent. In other words, it can communicate a just barely passable level of skill or ability.

Competent seems to be at a medium level of register (formality). In some very relaxed and informal conversations, it may be more appropriate to simply say something like she's a good/great lawyer.


The confusion arises from the fact that both words are adjectives.

I think competent relates more to a person, institution, authority (may be machinery): a competent machine, a competent athlete, a competent department. It shows the quality and ability rather than comparison.

Competitive includes abstract terms as well as the above: competitive salary, competitive sport, competitive examination. It shows spirit, desire, passion and comparison.


To me is clear that competitive can be somewhat degrading to others. It implies to compare yourself to others. E.g. A better soccer player with better skills. In other words, always trying to prove yourself that you are better than others.

Competent in the other hand, it implies that you are doing your best for your soccer team regardless of your lack of skills. Basically what you are trying to "prove " is that you are trying your best.

Starbucks vs Peet's coffee. Peet's makes the best coffee. Starbucks makes the most profit.

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