This question concerns only the non-technical meanings of 'mode' and 'modality', and excepts the technical subject-based meanings. Etymologically, mode precedes modality.

How do they, and their Semantic Fields, differ?

OED on 'mode':

  1. a. A way or manner in which something is done or takes place; a method of proceeding in any activity, business, etc. Freq. with of.   [...]

  2. a. A particular form, manner, or variety in which some quality, phenomenon, or condition occurs or is manifested.   [...]

II. In senses derived from French.

  1. a. A prevailing fashion, custom, practice, or style, esp. one characteristic of a particular place or period.

OED on 'modality':

  1. a. Those aspects of a thing which relate to its mode, or manner or state of being, as distinct from its substance or identity; the non-essential aspect or attributes of a concept or entity. Also: a particular quality or attribute denoting the mode or manner of being of something. Cf. mode n. 6a.

2 Answers 2


In 25 words or less:

mode refers to the manner of something

modality refers to manner as a topic of discourse in its own right

P.S. We start with the noun mode, whose adjectival form is modal. The adjective is (re)nominalized with the -ity suffix, such that the word modality means "the condition or fact or quality of being modal"; the motive for nominalizing the adjective is to establish a word so that predications can be asserted in respect to the idea of it rather than in respect to particular instances of "the modal"-- in order words, so that the concept can become a topic of discourse in its own right, i.e. separate from those things which are modal.

  • Thanks, but will you please elaborate? I still don't discern the difference(s).
    – user8712
    May 1, 2017 at 2:52
  • 1
    All nouns are abstract in a sense, being but names for things in the world; the -ality suffix marks the noun as an abstraction, to refer to it as a topic of discourse in its own right. Compare proportion and proportionality.
    – TimR
    May 1, 2017 at 10:42
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    topic of discourse in its own right ~ a higher-level "concept"
    – TimR
    May 1, 2017 at 14:33

I think there’s an easier way to reason about the differences between these two words. A modality might have many modes. A mode is one of a set of categories within a modality class.

To use an analogy to seasons, autumn is a mode, and seasons are a modality.

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