compel, impel

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Senior Member
Hi all,
I'd like to see the difference between impel and compel.
There's a thread which says that impel is more forceful, but I can't tell whether that was in a specific context or generally.
-pel comes from the Latin pellere if I am not mistaken which means "to push"
should i be able to tell something from com- and im?

Example of context
...I had really felt ashamed of doing what I was nevertheless impelled to do. (Dickens, D.Copperfield)

I am afraid - sore afraid - that this purpose originated in my sense of the contrast there would be between me and Joe, if we went to the coach together. I had pretended with myself that there was nothing of this taint in the arrangement; but when I went up to my little room on this last night, I felt compelled to admit that it might be so.. (Dickens, Great Expectations)

Is there a difference, when there is no outside agent, between 'was' and 'felt' im/com/pelled?

Thank you.
  • Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    They can be very close in meaning, and dictionaries aren't always helpful, but compel has an element of force (even without an outside agent), while impel has more of a sense of drive or motion.

    "Compel", in my opinion, does go with the feeling that one must admit something, in the sense that one is being forced by one's conscience to do so. "Impel", to me, is more associated with a spontaneous feeling or desire (the word's related to impulse).

    The thoughts of other native speakers may also be helpful.


    Senior Member
    Thanks Parla.

    From what you said;
    there is spontaneous participation in 'impel',
    'compel' can be thought of being outside oneself like conscience is, and maybe more calm and even.

    (There is a series where vampires can 'compel' people to do stuff.)

    If I summarised it right: is there one which is the stronger when speaking of a particular moment, or a longer period of time?

    Also, since impel is associated with impulse, is compel useful to think of as associated with command?
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    Senior Member
    English - England
    I like Parla's explanation: You compel by unwanted force: you impel (i.e. drive) by natural means.

    You compel people and things to do something against their will or natural inclination; objects are impelled by a natural force without reference to, or independent of, will.

    "The prisoners were compelled to work 20 hours a day." <- they did not want to do this.

    "The current (force of the water) impelled him towards the rocks." <- it is irrelevant whether he wanted it or not.


    Senior Member
    India - Hindi
    Here I would like to add a great quotation which motivates us to be proactive to achieve success as well as illustrates the difference between the two words: "Stars impel but do not compel." Sorry I don't remember the writer's name as I read it a long time back.


    Senior Member
    Thanks PaulQ and Englishmypassion.
    That is a pretty quote, Englishmypassion; I think just from that I would associate 'impel' with 'inspire' and 'compel' with 'drive'.
    You compel by unwanted force: you impel (i.e. drive) by natural means.
    I understand this; although I didn't read Parla this way, because conscience is not wholly unwanted; or because your use of impel is physical and the Dickens' isn't /e/.

    Would you please give non-physical example of 'impel'? And contrast with 'compel'?

    If I have a choice between those two verbs only, do I use them correctly below?
    Animals are impelled to spread their genes.
    Animals were compelled to seek new habitats after the flood.

    Would you please say how different do the verbs sound if I replace 'to be' with 'to feel'?
    I was compelled to work.
    I felt compelled to work.
    I was impelled to check on him.
    I felt impelled to check on him.
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