This is the question.

At first a critic felt that I had not done enough research. But it turned out that he had I were using the same dictionary definitions, except that I "equated" two definitions that he thought were rather different.

I also hypothesized a "nuance" not found in most dictionary definitions; that "relentless" was more "honorable" than "ruthless."

Whatever its initial shortcomings, the edited question clearly shows my research and meets at least the "formal" requirements for inclusion on the site.

I realize that my definition may be wrong and the other person's may be right. But isn't the whole point of the ELU site to separate what's "right" from "wrong?" As long as I spell out my assumptions (flawed or otherwise) so that they can be identified and addressed, should my question be acceptable on this site? Or do "flawed assumptions" automatically make a question "poor" and "off topic"?

A defender (with over 10,000 reputation) wrote: "If you just use Google Books or some other corpus and check usage, both past and recent, you will find they are often synonyms. In most cases, ruthless is being used hyperbolically in place of relentless. It is frequently found anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. I completely understand the confusion here. This question shouldn't be closed."

Another high ranked user pointed out that some authorities consider the two words synonyms.(See answer below).

Or perhaps this site is to too "advanced" for my question, and that it is best asked on ELL instead?

2 Answers 2


I think the main problem is that you didn't include your research in the question. Including said research (and probably some context about how that research relates to your question) would fix the question, since the close reason specifically states (emphasis in original): "Please include the research you’ve done...".

When you don't include your research, people are liable to repeat what you know as answers, which isn't a good use of anyone's time. Including your research raises the bar for answers and makes the question much more interesting. That's why we require it.

As for the claims of it being "based on a flawed assumption" and that the words are "not synonymous", I'm just going to point to the first thesaurus I checked, since it includes the two words as synonyms: Oxford Dictionaries Thesaurus. This would also be a good point to include in the question.

  • I have "formally" added the required research to my question. The rest of the question shows how I "equate" the two definitions. In theory, that should prevent it from being closed. But I fear that's not the "main" reason for the disapproval. Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 8:29
  • 2
    @TomAu Actually, it probably is. The words appear to have very different connotations, so it is up to the OP to state the case that they are actually quite similar in specific contexts. Listing the dictionary and thesaurus entries is the first step. Then show a paragraph where swapping the words doesn’t change the connotation. Some of the best questions are those that look obvious, but pack an example that challenges the assumptions. You’ve stated your opinion in the question. You need to then back it up so that we can see where you’re coming from.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 9:48
  • @Lawrence: I also stated my "guess" of the difference between "relentless" and "ruthless" as being willing to stab people in the belly as opposed to stabbing people in the back (pursuing the same thing, e.g. a promotion). Or didn't that come across.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 16:48
  • @TomAu That's a little different. My point was that the question appears to be uninteresting to fluent speakers at first glance, and it's your job as the question's author to bring out the point of interest. Someone seeing your question for the first time might think, "A relentless person doesn't necessarily stab anyone anywhere." That's part of a specific context you have in your mind, but you need to make that context explicit so that others can see that you're not talking about "relentless" in its full generality; you're talking about it in a limited (and interesting) setting.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 16:57

The two are confusing because they can both arise from a single decision or commitment if the circumstances are right, which means there are times when they can be switched without raising any eyebrows, but also times when they can't be. Your critic has jumped on the later cases. You confusion stems from the former cases.

Start with the dictionary defs. Ruthless can mean cruel, or without pity towards others, or it can mean without remorse. And the latter is actually closer to its original meaning based on the old word rue. By implication, the ruthless one must have done something that would typically evince remorse in other people or in different circumstances. So a person can be ruthless as a matter of standard operating procedures, or they might occasionally be ruthless in exceptional circumstances.

Relentless is a bit easier to handle. MW has it as "showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace."

If someone promises to pursue something to the ends of the earth in the face of conflicting attitudes from others, it's going to create strife. If their attitude is - well, that's their problem - then this avowed lack of pity deserves to be labeled ruthless as well as relentless.

But the two are separable as well. A ruthless act can occur in an instant, without any sense of relentlessness. And some examples of relentlessness won't even begin to accept ruthless, for instance "One of Mother Teresa's great strengths was her relentless focus on the core mission of her organization: helping the poorest of the poor." Gov Leaders.com

This site's rules and structure make it difficult to handle muddy questions. This one turns out to be very sensitive to context. You can try to rescue the question by providing examples of usage from reputable authors which you find confusing. I'm glad you stuck with it as long as you have.


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