Sympathy means “to have compassion for, or feel sorry about, someone else’s sorrow or misfortunes”:
Empathy means “understanding or experiencing someone else’s emotions or experiences as if they were your own, or as a shared experience”:
When to Use Sympathy vs. Empathy
The word sympathy is a noun that means “to have compassion for, or feel sorry about, someone else’s sorrow or misfortunes” (as in “you have my sympathy”).
The word empathy is a noun that refers to “understanding or experiencing someone else’s emotions or experiences as if they were your own, or as a shared experience” (as in “empathy for a fellow patient”).
Examples of Sympathy vs. Empathy
(In this sentence, “sympathy” refers to feeling sorry for someone in distress.)
(In this sentence, “empathy” refers to understanding and sharing the emotion of another person.)
How to Remember the Difference
The difference between the meanings of the words sympathy and empathy is as much emotional as it is grammatical. Knowing which word to use for a given situation can be tricky.
A good rule of thumb is to determine which word to use based on the level of connection that the subject of the sentence feels with the object.
For example, if the subject identifies with, and shares the pain of, the object, “empathy” is the correct word to use: She knew that he had lost his father when he was very young, just like she had, and felt a deep empathy for him rise in her heart.
Instead, if the subject is aware of the object’s suffering but feels no direct connection other than sorrow for the object, “sympathy” is the right word to use: As he watched the hurricane footage from his warm, dry apartment, he felt sympathy for those losing their homes.
Theory Into Practice: Which Is Which?
Is the underlined word correct? See if you can tell.
Right: This is about that sorrow that comes from a large community for an individual person. It is general, and so “sympathy” should be used.
Wrong: She has gone through the same problems and can relate. She has a shared experience, and so “empathy” should be used.