Intrinsic vs. Inherent

By Maeve Maddox

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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:

innate
immanent
built-in
in-dwelling
inborn
ingrained
deep-rooted
essential
fundamental
basic
structural
organic
natural
instinctive
instinctual
congenital
native
inbred
connate
deep-seated
indelible
ineradicable
integral

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7 Responses to “Intrinsic vs. Inherent”

  • Bill

    To me, “inherent” is said of a characteristic passed down, as something inherited would be: “As the son of two professional basketball players, he had an inherent interest in the game and the ability to play it well.”
    “Intrinsic” is something inborn but not necessarily inherited: “Her height and athletic ability gave her an intrinsic ability to play basketball well.”
    Bad sentences, but I’m just using them to illustrate my thoughts.

  • thebluebird11

    I might agree with Bill in a way, but maybe not quite…I mean, I could just be wrong. it seems that the subtlety here is that something inherent originates from outside the object and is bestowed somehow, for some reason, on or in the object, so that it then becomes an inseparable part of the object; but the object was not “born” with that trait or entitlement. Something that is intrinsic really belongs to that object, the object was born with it or came with it, and it cannot be taken away or separated from it without permanently changing or damaging the object to the point of uselessness. So for example, I would say that here in the US, freedom of speech is an inherent right of the people; however, it is not inherently a human right, because people in some other parts of the world do not have that right. In other words, the right to freedom of speech has been bestowed upon us, and we believe it to be sufficiently embedded in our lives and rights, HERE, to be considered inherent. If, however, we say that freedom of speech is intrinsic to human beings, that is like saying that it comes with being human, which it does not.
    I hope I’m making sense.

  • Yo Mama

    Inherent seems kin to INHERITED
    Intrinsic seems kin to INTRICATE

    My knowledge of subject based solely on logic not formula but I formed these conclusions as personal fact long ago and finally investigated to find almost exact conclusions abroad. Just makes sense to accept and influence a logical application of our language. A notable increase our scholastic achievements in the short leading to an intrinsic quality of speech for generations to come.

  • Maeve

    Yo Mamma,
    Perhaps.

    As for me, when it comes to English idiom and usage, I think that logic is highly overrated.

  • Ben

    From your examples, the comments, and the Latin I might contrast them in light of one way I intuitively conceptualize the world, the idea the abstraction levels are above or below relative to each other.

    ^^^ Intrinsically has value/property as seen from some higher level abstraction (it’s deeper within it)
    -noun-
    vvv Inherently has value/property as seen from some lower level abstraction (it’s stuck to the outside of it)

  • Roca Williams

    This is anecdotal but I’ve always taught that “inherent” is observed and/or subjective whereas “intrinsic” exists independent of observation and/or objective. So operating under that logic, think of offending someone. One cannot “give” offense, it can only be taken. Thus a word or phrase can’t be intrinsically offensive, but it CAN be inherently offensive.

  • Samuel Rose

    Here is how I use the two in my writing. Claiming, “writer’s privilege,” my grammar and vocabulary really does not have to line up with anyone else’s definition…all that matters is that I am consistent. 🙂

    But here we go. I use “intrinsic” when talking about objects. (Fun Fact: in my cosmovision, nothing is an object…everything is first a wave…but some waves are harder than others…meet the electron and quark, for example.)

    “Inherent” is subtly different and here’s how. Consider this sentence: “He knows that he is intrinsically heterosexual, but concedes that _society’s_ narrative places him in the inherently gay category.”

    In other words, the distinction is one of reality versus the consensus of society. Society can be at odds with reality, it turns out. They can ascribe a characteristic to a person or other living being (typically) or to non-living objects and waves.

    So, I use the word “inherent” to indicate that this is the perception of the social fabric. As such, it is _not carved in stone_. Sort of like these Covid-19 numbers we are seeing. They started by saying: “We have x many cases.” Then it evolved to: “We have confirmed x many cases after testing y subjects.” Then it evolved to: “We have confirmed x many cases after testing y subjects, plus there are z other presumed cases.” Finally, we are at: “[all of the above] and also we estimate the total cases in the population to be k.” So, those are _ALL_ inherent characteristics of Covid-19 for a given moment of time. The reality…? Is different from all of those…that is the intrinsic situation in which we find ourselves.

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