"Jealousy" Versus "Envy"

An exclusive excerpt from Grammar Girl’s new book, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #326

troublesome wordsI have a new book coming out soon called 101 TROUBLESOME WORDS YOU’LL MASTER IN NO TIME, so for the next few weeks I’m going to be giving you a sneak peek at the entries in that book. 

Why Are the Words in the Book Troublesome?

English is always changing, and that always leaves us with troublesome words that are only sort of wrong. Some people insist the old ways to use words are the only correct ways, and other people use words in newer ways without even realizing they’re controversial. Like it or not, one way English changes is through misunderstandings and mistakes that gain a hold in the minds of enough people.

In other instances, we really have no rules. Some words have two acceptable spellings or two acceptable past-tense forms. Sometimes experts take more of a “this way is better, but that way isn’t wrong” approach. It’s frustrating for people who just want to know what to write in their papers or e-mail messages.

Finally, some words are so confusing that people wish the rules would change, but they haven’t.

In 101 TROUBLESOME WORDS, I tackle many of these infuriating words—most of which I haven’t covered in other books because they seemed too tricky—and I make judgments about which ones you should use without guilt today, and which ones you should shun a little longer. It’s likely you won’t agree with every side I choose, but at least I’ve made a stand. In confusing cases, I’ve found that most people appreciate someone else doing the research and providing some guidance.

“Jealous” Versus “Envious”

The trouble is that “jealous” and “envious” have overlapping meanings and are often used interchangeably, but some people argue that they mean different things.

Some sources say “jealous” is supposed to be limited to resentful emotional rivalries (often romantic) with another person, whereas “envious” can expand to cover desiring or coveting objects or accomplishments gained by another person. Jealously can also come with an element of fear that you might lose someone. On the other hand, if you’re envious, you want what somebody else has. 

Let’s look at some examples. 

If your girlfriend has a best friend who’s a dude, you’re probably jealous. You might have an emotional rivalry with the guy and you might be afraid he’s really after your girlfriend.  

But you’re simply envious of her upcoming trip to Hawaii because you wish you were going too. 

If she’s going to Hawaii with the best friend, you can be jealous and envious at the same time! (Clearly, it’s a doomed relationship.)

Nevertheless, movies and magazine articles commonly use jealous when envious would be the more precise term according to traditional definitions, and dictionaries include overlapping definitions of the two words. The distinction between them in practice is weak, at best.

What Should You Do? 

If you wish to be precise, make a distinction between “jealous” and “envious” in your writing, but don’t be surprised when the definitions are blurred in pop culture.

That’s from my new book GRAMMAR GIRL'S 101 TROUBLESOME WORDS YOU’LL MASTER IN NO TIME. Buy it starting July 9.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.