Compel, Impel, and Propel

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A reader asks,

Would you explain the differences among compel, impel, and propel. Here is an instance that I read:“…I find myself returning again and again to the question of what compels us — what propels us — to record our impressions of the present moment in all their fragile subjectivity.”

The pel in compel, impel, and propel derives from the Latin verb pellere, “to drive,” as in the way one drives sheep, forcing them to go in a certain direction.

compel: transitive verb. To urge irresistibly, oblige, force. “The police compelled the motorist to stop.”

impel: transitive verb. To drive, force, or constrain a person to some action by acting upon her mind or feelings; to urge on, incite. In a literal sense, impel means to cause something to move onward. An engine, for example, impels a vehicle.

propel: transitive verb. To drive away or out. to drive or push forwards, onwards, or in a specified direction; to cause to move along. Figuratively, propel means “to encourage or promote an enterprise or activity.” One can “propel a person” in the sense of urging or spurring him on.

In the example provided by the reader–what compels us–what propels us–to record our impressions–, both compel and propel convey the idea of being driven to do something.

Compel conveys the idea that the person is being forced to do it; propel shows that the person is encouraged to do it by the same “what” that forces him to do it.

Three other pellere verbs in English are:

dispel: to drive asunder, scatter
expel: to drive out
repel: to push or thrust away

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4 thoughts on “Compel, Impel, and Propel”

  1. The difference is in the strength of the driving force:
    * Impel – urged; persuaded
    * Propel – pushed; thrust
    * Compel – forced; constrained

  2. My understanding of compel, impel, propel is slightly different.

    You may compel a living thing to perform or not perform an action. Compel requires a living being to act upon. The word always implies the use of force, either perceived or actual.

    You may impel a living thing to perform or not perform an action through some action directed at the living thing’s thought processes. Note
    that the word impel should only be used as a verb in conjunction with a living being. Inatimate objects can not be impeled as they poses no mind to be able to impel. This word also implies force, abiet mental force.

    Propel is used with inatimate objects. The motor proelled the boat. You might propel an unconscious or restrained living being. The word propel always denotes some type of physical movement.

    My thoughts are not well stated. It was a struggle for me to be able to find words to describe the differences between tho three words. And, I found it increadibly difficult to present a view which is slightly different from yours. You are, after all, the expert!

  3. Animate beings can propel, also: “Horses propel those barges along the canal.” (For example, the old Erie Canal and the old Potomac and
    Ohio Canal. I am an American and I know about those, but I am sure that there were horse-drawn canal barges in Europe, too.)
    There can be ferries that are propelled by mules or oxen, too – drawn via long ropes or cables.

    Three other pellere verbs in English are: dispel, expel, and repel.
    Now, let’s get with some nouns: propeller and impeller.
    Because of the way that people talk “Down South”, when I was a boy I was confused between impala and impeller. It sounded like people were saying “Chevrolet Impeller” instead of “Chevrolet Impala”, and when I was young, I had no idea what an “impala” was. I barely know what an antelope was – because those are African animals.

    In the western United States, we have pronghorns, which are antelopes, too, but I did not live there.

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