Definite vs. Definitive

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Would you please explain what is the difference between “definite” and “definitive.”

Definite is the adjective to use in the sense of clear, certain, unambiguous. For example:

Think carefully before choosing 24-bit and 96kHz, unless you have a definite reason for wanting these options. 

One sets out into the forest for a definite reason and with a definite goal in mind.

I asked my boyfriend to give me a definite answer about our future.

Use definitive when the sense is decisive, complete, authoritative, final, determinate.

Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography
Five Reasons the 1978 Superman Remains Definitive

The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition

The first comprehensive psychiatry textbook to integrate the new DSM-5® criteria, this acclaimed gold standard is the definitive guide for a new era in psychiatric education and practice.

Here are examples of definitive used in contexts that call for plain old definite:

Just want a definitive answer can my 2 year old use the kids club facilities???

My girlfriend broke up with me, but she never gave a definitive reason as to why.

He can’t actually give me a definitive reason as to why he doesn’t like cats.

Both words connote the setting of limits, but definitive goes further than definite to mean “most complete, most authoritative.” A definitive reason, answer, or decision is one that satisfies a specific body of criteria.

Studies, textbooks, and decisions by such authorities as the Supreme Court may be said to be definitive. If all you mean is unambiguous, use definite.


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