Relative and relevant: word usage

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On Monday, I was at conference which was full of interesting content presented by a number of excellent speakers.

One woman, a lawyer, delivered a long and very detailed explanation of the Protection of Personal Information Act, undeniable proof that her grasp of the act was sound. Not so the English language. She just proved that English can trip up the most educated individuals, who despite their areas of expertise requiring deep knowledge of the language,  still cannot get their heads around certain words.


For this speaker, her confusion was around the words relevant and relative. Every time she said, “it must be relative” I had to apply rigorous restraint not to stick my hand up to say, “Excuse me, but you mean ‘relevant’.  Instead, I bit my tongue and cringed at every misused mention.

While composed of letters common to both, and seemingly easy to confuse, the words relative and relevant, have different meanings.

Relevant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “closely connected to or appropriate to the current matter”.

Relational; compare

Relative, in the same source is explained as “considered in relation or in proportion to something else; existing only in comparison to something else: months of relative calm ended in April.

This suggests April was calmer in relation to other months.

If you say, “John is the genius in his family,” his genius is relative only to his other family members. (Relative – in relation to something else). Compared to his peers, who are also very smart, John does not rate as a genius. And this is relevant if boys are being selected for the school maths challenge. (Relevant – important to the matter at hand).

In another example, “These oranges are A-grade for the local market, but not good enough for export. Relative – compared to oranges in a range of quality.

There is a ban on oranges from South Africa in the UK due to new trade restrictions. This information would be relevant to all South African orange farmers (important to the current situation).

I hope you find this article relevant, relative to other language blogs that may or may not miss the mark.

Veracity and voracity: use these words correctly

Dual opinions come to blows: how words are misused


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