Inspiring vs. Inspirational

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What is the difference between ‘inspiring’ and ‘inspirational’?

Some speakers see no difference. Here, for example, in a headline and the text that follows it, the two words are used interchangeably to refer to the same speech:

Headline
Carina “La Reina” Moreno Gives Inspirational Speech to Late Graduating Students in Her Community of Watsonville California

Text
The ceremony took place at the Mello Center in Watsonville, California, where Moreno gave an inspiring speech, congratulating all the students on their accomplishment, struggle and dedication to get their diploma.

Both words, inspiring and inspirational, derive from the verb to inspire. The Latin original, inspirare, means, “to blow or breathe into.”

In some contexts, inspire has religious or spiritual connotations. For example, in ancient mythology, the Muses were goddesses who inspired learning and the arts. They breathed ideas into the minds of students, poets, and artists.

In Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, from which numerous English translations have been made, the verb inspirare is used literally in Genesis: God is described as having breathed (inspiravit) the breath of life into the nostrils of his human creation.

Likewise in 1 Peter 1:21, inspirati is used to explain the source of the revelations given to the prophets: “For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost.”

In a Google search, inspiring receives twice as many hits as inspirational, which seems to be more common in religious and spiritual contexts.

According to one definition, “an inspirational speaker” is “one who addresses audiences with the aim of inspiring the listeners to higher values or engendering understanding about life and themselves.”

In the business sphere, inspiring and inspirational often seem to conflate with motivational:

Help your attendees shake off the winter doldrums and get motivated at work with a rousing keynote from one of these inspirational speakers. 

Inspirational speakers bring a refreshing message of hope and encouragement, and can rejuvenate audience members, boosting morale and injecting optimism.

To be inspiring or inspirational, a speech, speaker, or book must stir a listener or reader emotionally. A speaker may intend to inspire an audience to work harder or to sell more widgets, but intentions don’t always produce results. Motivational may be the better choice in some contexts.

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