Compelled vs. Impelled: What’s the Difference?

The difference between compelled vs. impelled is just two letters, but their meanings are also slightly different. Here’s how to keep the two words straight.

Do you get confused when using compelled vs. impelled in a sentence? The two words have the same Latin root but have similar meanings, so they’re often used interchangeably. 

These two words have similar meanings doesn’t make it any easier for writers to use them correctly in their work. This is why we’re exploring the differences and similarities between compelled and impelled in terms of spellings and meanings.

Use impelled to describe actions driven by internal motivations or desires, suggesting a degree of voluntary choice. In contrast, use compelled to describe actions forced by external pressures or obligations, often implying a lack of freedom to choose otherwise.

While you’re here, check out our other guides on understanding similar words, like this article on infer vs imply differences.

Let’s dive in.

Compelled vs. Impelled: Which One Is Correct?

The words compelled and impelled sound similar and have similar meanings, which can cause confusion. Both refer to achieving something through physical or other force. Still, there are clear differences between the two.

Using the words appropriately is the key to clear and comprehensive writing, and that starts with definitions.

What Does Compelled Mean?

“The disease compelled John to stay in bed” is an example of compelled when used in a sentence

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the English word compelled is a past tense of the transitive verb that means “to drive or urge forcefully.” Interestingly, the verb was archaically used to say “to drive together,” but it’s not common to hear that today.

The word compel comes from the Latin compellere. The prefix com- stands for “together,” while pellere means “to drive.” The prefix strengthens this word and accentuates the fact that coercion is involved.

In other words, to compel means to force someone to yield or do what one wishes. And in that context, it doesn’t involve choices or morality. What this implies is that the person who is coerced doesn’t necessarily want or need to act that way but can fear the consequences in case they don’t

Examples Of Compelled In A Sentence

Let’s look at the verb compel in a couple of examples:

  • The attorney compelled them to testify by obtaining a witness order.
  • The high cost of living compelled Mike to move to a suburban area.
  • The disease compelled John to stay in bed.

In all three examples, we can see that the person/persons involved are forced to act under someone else’s pressure. So, in the first case, it’s clear that an attorney can make the witness testify in court, regardless of whether they want to. In other words, the power is in the hands of the law.

The second and third examples are the high cost of living and disease. These two words represent a specific drive that indirectly also applies pressure on someone to act that way. 

What Does Impelled Mean?

“Mark’s money worries impelled him to steal money from his boss” is an example of impelled when used in a sentence

Like compelled, the word impelled is borrowed from the Latin language. Impelled is the past tense of the verb impel, which comes from the Latin verb impellere, meaning “to push, drive or strike against something.”

The first part of the word, the prefix in-, is generally attached to verbs to derive them with a range of meanings. In this case, it’s used as: into, upon, on, and against. The other half of the word, just like compel, comes from the verb pellere, which means to drive or thrust.

Quite similar, right? Well, while the two words are sometimes used as synonyms, their clear difference in meaning stems from each word’s preposition. 

In both cases, there’s a force included – but in the case of impel, there’s also an intrinsic motivation to act that way. 

Examples Of Impelled In A Sentence

The best way to understand a specific word is to interpret it in a context. For that reason, let’s look at the word impel in a few example sentences:

  • Eaten with guilt, Mary was impelled to apologize to Josh.
  • Mark’s money worries impelled him to steal money from his boss.
  • Christopher’s competitiveness impelled him to take more risks at work. 

As you can see, there’s a force to act involved in all three examples. In Mary’s case, her guilt urges her to act that way. In the last sentence, Christopher’s competitiveness is his driving force at work.

But why would one use ” impelled ” instead of ” compelled “?

Picking “impelled” or “compelled” depends on the nuance one wishes to convey, as these terms involve a force driving an action or decision. However, they differ slightly in their connotations and usage:

In impelled cases, there’s an internal or strong motive toward a certain end. In other words, the person forced to act a certain way does so (at least partially) of his or her own volition.

In the compelled examples, there’s an external force or pressure to act. For example, Mike moved house because of the economy.

Let’s look at the second example. True, financial difficulties forced Mark to steal – but it’s not like an abstract noun can exert physical force on him to act that way. There’s still motivation behind his actions, even though it might not be the most ethical reason out there.

Confusing Impelled With Propelled

Now, impel is similar in sounds and meanings to another word in the English language, propel.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says that the verb propel means “to drive forward or onward by or as if by means of a force that imparts motion” 

Technically, that sounds pretty much like impel, right? Well, impel and propel have different meanings. Here’s a sentence example including the word propel:

  • The train is propelled by steam.

As you can see, the key difference between these two words is that impel means to act a certain way driven by emotions or morals, while propel is driven by physical, external force.


  • Viktoria is a journalist and content writer with years of experience writing magazine and newspaper articles, web copy, and blog posts. When not immersed in words, Viktoria enjoys the tranquility of the outdoors, where she finds inspiration and rejuvenation in hiking and camping.