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I came upon a closed question that suggested there was a simple answer to the question "What is the specific difference between 'fascinating' and 'interesting'?". The question was closed as off-topic because the question "could be answered using commonly-available references". When I looked at my dictionary (OED) I got a completely different and contradictory perspective.

Whereas "fascinating" could be distinguished from "interesting" in the Cambridge dictionary merely by a difference in intensity, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provided histories of usage of the words which distinguished them by connotation and a more accurate (in my opinion) description of usage. For instance, meanings of "interesting" in the OED dealt somewhat generally with being invested in something and being curious or excited by while meanings of "fascinating" dealt historically with notions of bewitchment and spellbound attraction. "Fascinating" could be simplified to appear to simply be a more intense version of the word "interesting", but the connotations are clearly different contextually. The words have different flavors, just as words tend never to be perfect synonyms.

When I came across this question, the closed stackexchange thread was the first result I came across, but it was entirely unsatisfactory to me. I was frustrated that the question of why someone might think these words were different was being dismissed as too simple, when it would only take someone with a modicum of access to expensive reference texts to find fascinating or interesting answers to the question and differences beyond mere intensity.

A lot of these "what is the difference between 'X' and 'Y'?" questions have much more valuable answers than can be found using commonly available references. The OED is not commonly available and I only have access to it as a university student.

If "commonly available" references are conclusive substitutes to the extent that they shut down questions, isn't the ELU stackexchange implicitly limiting its scope in answering these questions to content which is already available and not generating new and better answers?

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jun 2 at 22:33

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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    This would be better placed on the Meta site since it's a question about questions. – KillingTime Jun 2 at 12:27
  • Not everyone has access to the OED, I don't. The person asking the question could have also done a modicum of research and then asked why their teacher had suggested "interesting" in place of "fascinating", and if that was correct. The OP didn't supply any context whatsoever, so what was "fascinating" to them we'll never know. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 at 13:05
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    I wonder if Dawson will reply... we see a number of posts complaining and criticising the site and its users but these visitors tend to abandon the website without actually engaging with any of its members. A user visits a site for fifteen minutes, sees something they don't like and think they have understood everything... – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 at 13:08
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    I wonder if this should be a duplicate of How much research is needed? — the referenced question was closed for lack of any research in common dictionaries. – Andrew Leach Jun 2 at 23:54
  • Probably because Dawson, like many other new users, come here just for an answer and reasonably they don’t care about entering an obscure arena where they don’t really understand whom they are talking to. Extended discussions (generally far from friendly) scare new users away... – user240918 Jun 3 at 9:24
  • @user240918 off you go, reopen the question if you consider it on topic but you'd be very wrong because the OP never explained what was "fascinating", and why their teacher corrected him/her. As for Dawson, the same type of native speaker visitor that we occasionally get, the TL;DR generation. What happened to good old fashioned lurking??! – Mari-Lou A Jun 3 at 10:52
  • @user240918 - "they don’t really understand whom they are talking to" -- I don't understand this. Could clarify what you meant, please? It sort of sounds as though you might have been saying New users don't realize how much smarter the denizens of this site are -- but maybe you meant something different? I'm having trouble figuring it out. Thanks. – aparente001 Jun 6 at 14:59
  • @Mari-LouA the context or motivation of the question isn't actually relevant to the question, which was very well put. The OP asked for the "specific difference between interesting and fascinating" and received a short minimalist reply which might have sufficed in context (we don't know) but in any case failed to get to the clarity of even readily available resources like Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (MWDS). A dead end with little content is not satisfying to third party observers, and if ELU wants to be useful, it should raise the bar. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 18:44
  • Hello! I'm so glad you turned up. As for raising the bar, you're absolutely right. That's why on El&U we dissuade casual visitors from using the site as a dictionary service. Of course great answers needn't be spurred by great questions, but it helps if the person asking shows what research they have done and provides just a little context too. Otherwise, we'll be swamped by visitors asking what's the difference between cool and cold, high and tall, deep and profound etc. You can get a lot of clarification from online dictionaries answers, don't you agree? – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 18:56
  • Questions about slang, pronunciation, etymology and the different English dialects require more expert advice/answers. Sometimes you just need a native speaker's viewpoint to help defog the mist, but before asking, at least tell us the context. Don't simply ask: What does this sentence mean? – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 18:59
  • Sure, plenty of clarification from online dictionaries is available. The problem that I see is that an excellent question was asked in a poor way, and rather than take the small amount of time to modify the question so as to provide a lasting reference to a better scholastic approach, the ELU closure justifications effectively ostracized the OP and failed to give a noteworthy answer. "The difference between interesting and fascinating is in intensity, and you're a plebeian and you're exiled from this thread" shows a general lack of sophistication and understanding of the ELU. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:03
  • A superior alternative approach is to create a list of good resources that might answer these kinds of "difference between" questions, and use that standard list instead of closing the question. Link to that resource, and just as tagging questions as duplicates, new users might find ELU useful rather than hostile. A good starting point would be Merriam Websters Dictionary of Synonyms, and the Oxford English Dictionary, and I'm sure there are more good references. Even if not all of them are freely available, it is worth providing references. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:07
  • When I wrote "shows a general lack of sophistication and understanding of the ELU" I should have written "shows that the ELU lacks sophistication and understanding". It's not that the person who wrote the reply doesn't understand the website but rather that the website appears unsophisticated and limited in understanding if it fails to cite a minimum standard of accepted research if there is a consensus that there such a thing. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:16
  • Hi. I came back to visit and saw you posted a couple of comments, unfortunately I didn't receive any notification in my inbox, the system works like this: If you want to notify a user you need to place @ + username, e.g. @user240918. If you are the author of a post, you will be notified each and every time someone posts a comment, which is why you don't see your username plastered beneath your post. I'd really advise you to spend some time perusing the site, visit the highest voted questions to get a feel of the place and at the same time see how Qs and Answers have evolved over the years. – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 22:02
  • english.stackexchange.com/questions?sort=votes enjoy! I am off to nana Zzzz... – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 22:03
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At one level, a person could look up fascinating and interesting in, say, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) and find these entries:

fascinating adj (1638) : extremely interesting or charming : CAPTIVATING

...

interesting adj (1768) : holding the attention : arousing interest

Those definitions are, as Mr. Spock might say, interesting but not fascinating. They indicate that people may use fascinating to convey the idea that something is at the high end of interesting or, on the other hand, that it may involve some level of involuntary appeal. But the two definitions in this general reference offer only a very brief description of how the words differ in practical meaning, and provide virtually no discussion of any underlying difference in tenor or implied direction that they may possess.

To get a sense of those differences, a person might consult Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984), which goes beyond the general-reference dictionary to identify a group of words that a particular word falls into. As it turns out, MWDS puts fascinating and interesting in different groups of synonyms.

Fascinating appears in a group with charming, bewitching, enchanting, captivating, alluring, and attractive, with a link to the following discussion of the verb form fascinate in an entry under attract:

Attract, allure, charm, fascinate, bewitch, enchant, captivate mean to draw another by exerting an irresistible or compelling influence over him. The same distinctions in implications and connotations are observable in the adjectival forms of these words, attractive, alluring, charming, fascinating, bewitching, enchanting, captivating. ... Fascinate, like charm, implies the casting of a spell, but it usually suggests the ineffectiveness of resistance or helplessness to escape from from the one that fascinates [examples omitted]

Interesting, meanwhile, appears in a group with engrossing, absorbing, and intriguing, with this comment about what the words have in common:

interesting, engrossing, absorbing, intriguing mean having a quality or qualities that secure attention and hold it for a length of time. Interesting implies a power in a person or thing to awaken such a mental or emotional reaction involving attention as curiosity, sympathy, a desire to know or understand, or enthusiasm, but unless the adjective is qualified or there is a fuller explanation in the context, the degree or the cause of interest is not clear [examples omitted] As applied to a book, a play, or a narrative the word usually means entertaining, diverting (compare verbs at AMUSE) exciting, stimulating, or provocative (compare verbs at PROVOKE), but if the context provides no real clue as to the precise implication, the word may fail to hit the mark.

So the essential difference in the orientation of the two words, according to MWDS is that fascinating at its core involves attraction whereas interesting at its core involves attention.


S.I. Hayakawa, Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words (1968) provides a somewhat dated but still useful treatment of the adjective fascinating (which Hayakawa bundles with charming, bewitching, captivating, enchanting, entrancing, and winning) and the verb interest (which he bundles with entertain, amuse, and divert):

charming [etc.] All of these words are superlatives used mainly to describe the pleasing manner of an attractive person, usually a woman. ... Fascinating has perhaps suffered less from overuse as a superlative than these other words. Although more general in application, it still can suggest, like entrancing, a prospect that is almost hypnotic in its inviting quality. It applies to men as well as women, to any attractive scene or view, or to any idea or thing that is extremely interesting. In all cases it is like captivating and winning in suggesting the ability to overcome resistance, however strong: [example omitted].

...

entertain [etc.] These words have to do with activity that draws the attention and makes time pass agreeably. ... Interest is the most general of these words. To interest someone is to excite or hold his curiosity or attention, for whatever reason. [Examples omitted.] But the specific sense in which interest compares with the other words in this set involves an awakening of attention by some entertaining expedient: [example omitted].

Once again, as with *MWDS'*s treatment of the two words, the essential difference seems to relate to the notion that fascinating is based on attraction and interesting is based on attention.


Ultimately, all questions about the differences in meaning between two words are susceptible to the criticism that the question asker should simply have looked up the two words in a dictionary and see how the definitions given there differ. In my view, this argument gives short shrift to the complexity and subtlety of word meanings and word usage.

I think that consulting reference works that focus on distinguishing particular words from others with similar meanings is a far more fruitful way to reach an understanding of how two words differ in meaning than simply checking the entries for the two words in a general-reference dictionary of the sort that any visitor to English Language & Usage may be fairly presumed to possess. Indeed, the reason that the "differences" tag isn't banned at EL&U is that in many instances a general-reference dictionary is not especially helpful in clarifying such differences.

For these reasons I completely agree with Dawson Baker that it is a mistake to assume that a general-reference dictionary will satisfactorily answer a serious question about the differences in meaning between two words.

  • The point is not whether a single dictionary entry can fully answer someone's request to understand the difference in meaning and nuance between two similar words but whether the question, as formulated, is on topic on EL&U. The OP's complaint primarily was about its closure. – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 4:28
  • Sorry for being a pain, but is it really ‘a serious question’? Or was it simply that the OP wanted to understand why their teacher corrected them? Well, we can never answer that question satisfactorily because no context was supplied by the OP. – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 6:33
  • @Mari-LouA, while there wasn't enough context to determine why the question was asked, the information that we had available from the OP that raised objections from ELU. The first objection was that the OP should have done more research, and the second was that simple research would have answered the question. Neither objection, in my opinion, should have closed the question. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 18:04
  • My point is that I am not convinced that simple research answers seemingly simple questions well enough for this to warrant closure. Moreover just as the OP of the "interesting vs fascinating" was taking an English class and perhaps didn't have the cultural programming to look at a dictionary, I was ignorant of MWDS and other sources like it out of cultural distrust of thesauruses even having taking an English class in college. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 18:16
  • The closure of the thread on the objections raised dismisses the OP rather than encouraging good habits that would increase the quality of ELU but further fails to supply a good answer, again missing an opportunity to increase the quality of ELU. As far as I can tell, the closure of the thread is effectively ostracism, and the OP of the "interesting vs fascinating" thread is unlikely to learn from the experience to look in a basic dictionary. Being a newcomer to this site I did not have the reputation to supply a different answer so I opened a new thread. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 18:23
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    I am probably in the minority at EL&U on this point, but I think that the criteria we should be using to judge the value of a question are (1) whether other people who visit the site might have the same question and (2) whether the question requires a nontrivial answer to be satisfactorily answered. Criterion 1 would be best served by reinstating the "too localized" close reason, which would make the issue of long-term usefulness an explicit consideration for review queue reviewers. As for criterion 2, you will notice that it effectively asks, "Is this a challenging and interesting question?"— – Sven Yargs Jun 7 at 18:26
  • —not "What were the poster's motives in asking the question?" or "Does the poster realize that this is a potentially challenging question, or did he or she just get lucky?" or "Did the poster do any research before posting the question here—and if so, where is it?" As I've repeatedly argued, those questions, from the perspective of what types of posted questions and answers are of long-term value to EL&U, are beside the point. They focus on incidental features of a question rather than on whether the question itself is valid, interesting, and useful to other site visitors. – Sven Yargs Jun 7 at 18:27
  • Sven I totally agree. "If "commonly available" references are conclusive substitutes to the extent that they shut down questions, isn't the ELU stackexchange implicitly limiting its scope in answering these questions to content which is already available and not generating new and better answers?" This question is purposely a leading question. The standards for closure of "interesting vs. fascinating" appear to me to be incidental features of the post rather than related to the EL&U content which relates to the value of the stackexchange. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:30
  • The closure of the thread on incidental grounds puts on display a preference for pedantic incidental considerations rather than content-driven objections. In any case, there was a good question that did not get thoroughly answered by the responses, the terse and incomplete dictionary reference, or by the closure message. This, to me, is a failure. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:33
  • I think Sven's answer above conclusively proves that there is at least one commonly available resource (MWDS) that can provide connotation and meaning at a level sufficient at least for the "interesting vs. fascinating" question. This suggests that "lack of prior research" objections in this context should at a bare minimum include a link to the MWDS. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 19:40
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The research that demonstrates why the question couldn’t be answered by looking up the words in a dictionary should have been included in the question. Regardless of whether the question was closed for the root cause (no research) or the secondary effect (seems like it could be completely answered with a dictionary), it should have been put on hold.

If it were edited to include research showing that it’s not quite so simple when using freely available resources, maybe it could be reopened.

  • Is there a mechanism by which a new third party could redeem a question by putting in that legwork without resorting to a separate thread questioning the premise of the closure? The reasoning articulated in the closure, as far as I can tell, fails to properly communicate that the OP has the option to do further research to reopen the question. This seems to me to discourage good habits by discouraging participation of people without them rather than encouraging good habits by providing a learning opportunity for the OP through which they can redeem themselves. – Dawson Baker Jun 7 at 18:32
  • @DawsonBaker I may not understand your question, but anyone in the community can suggest an edit. The help center explains what it means when a question is closed, but ideally someone would leave a comment for new users explaining how to bring their question on-topic when they voted to close it. Not every question gets handled ideally, so when you come across something that seems to have slipped through the cracks, meta is the best place to handle it. – ColleenV Jun 8 at 11:16
  • Looking at the answer and responses on the question it appears that the people responding were more interested in arguing with each other rather than in amending the question. Couldn't there be a standard "this is how you provide acceptable preliminary research, other users please bring this question to conform with EL&U Standards" message that automatically appears as a result of the choice of closure justification? – Dawson Baker Jun 9 at 20:16
  • @DawsonBaker If it had been closed for lack of research there would have been that message. There is a lot of documentation on how to ask and what is on-topic for the site, if only people would read it. – ColleenV Jun 9 at 21:26
  • while it may be true that there is a lot of documentation, you correctly point out that it is not being utilized. I'd suggest that the reason it isn't utilized is that it's not designed/deployed well. There are people who are used to dealing with error messages and RTFM on a regular basis, and there are people (most people) who don't. This makes the "read the documentation" objections appear a bit elitist. The docs need to be presented to new users. The whole problem is that users aren't in the habit of "looking it up", so how can you expect them to look up what to look up? – Dawson Baker Jun 10 at 22:10
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If the question appears interesting to you, you are welcome to offer an answer that expresses that point of interest. Some questions have been 'redeemed' by good answers.

  • Good advice if the question wasn't closed and if the user had enough rep (privilege) to cast a vote to reopen. Neither one of which is the case here. – Mari-Lou A Jun 7 at 4:25

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