Intrinsic vs. Inherent
A reader wants guidelines for the use of these two words:
I’ve read every explanation I can find but I’m still trying to clarify how to best choose the appropriate context in which to use the word intrinsic versus inherent.”
The adjectives inherent and intrinsic are synonyms. Both convey the idea of an inborn, essential aspect of something, an element that exists within a person or thing because of its very nature.
A web search indicates that inherent is used more frequently than intrinsic, bringing up twice as many hits for inherent (79,500,000) as for intrinsic (40,800,000).
Both words are found in discussions of rights, but “inherent rights” is more common with 415,000 search results than “intrinsic rights” with 35,300.
Here are typical uses:
The Government of Canada recognizes the inherent right of self-government as an existing Aboriginal right under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care.
There is no such thing as an inherent right to health care.
Today, family planning is almost universally recognized as an intrinsic right.
Students must recognize that nobody has an inherent right to an advanced education.
Inherent comes from a Latin verb that means, “to stick in” or “adhere to.” “An inherent characteristic” is one that is embedded in the thing that possesses it.
Intrinsic comes from a Latin word meaning “inwards.” “An intrinsic characteristic” is something that belongs to the thing itself.
Like the reader who posed the question, I feel that there is a subtle difference between the two, but cannot postulate a clear distinction. In many contexts they do seem to be interchangeable, but not in all.
I’m more likely to talk about the “intrinsic value” of a thing than its “inherent value,” but I’d say with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights that “Every human being has the inherent right to life.”
This pair of words may have more precise meanings in a scientific context, but in general usage, the choice seems to rest with the speaker.
If in doubt, perhaps you’d find one of the following a better choice for your purpose than either intrinsic or inherent:
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