Skip to main content

Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using empathy vs. sympathy vs. apathy with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including their differences and when they might overlap.

If you have trouble with understanding the difference between empathy, sympathy, and apathy, don't worry: It's not uncommon. They're all types of feelings, but they are decidedly different.

(Click here to learn more grammar rules for writers.)

Let's look at what each means and parse out how they differ.


Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy

Empathy is having the ability to understand what another person experiences from their point of view. There are actually three types of empathy (click here to learn more). In some cases, people experiencing empathy actually go beyond understanding another's experience and can actually feel it.

Sympathy is when someone shares feelings of sadness for another person's misfortune. While someone with empathy may feel sympathy for a friend, it's not necessary for these feelings to overlap. For instance, a person can have sympathy for a friend who lost a loved one but have no idea what that experience is like, but they do know their friend is sad. Conversely, a person could be super empathetic and not feel sympathy for someone is experiencing a hard time.

(Analogy vs. metaphor vs. simile.)

Apathy is a complete lack of feeling or concern for something or someone. It's not malicious or angry; rather, it's complete indifference. Perhaps, a numbness to a situation. As such, apathy and sympathy cannot co-exist. However, empathy and apathy could, because a person could understand another person's experiences and not care.

Here are a couple examples:

Person A: She hears about a friend who recently broke up with a spouse and feels upset for her friend and understands from her own experiences how her friend must feel (and may even feel heartbroken herself). (Empathetic sympathy)

Person B: He knows and understands why his friends are upset about his behavior of constantly using them for transportation without chipping in gas money, but he doesn't care or feel guilt over his behavior. (Empathetic apathy)

Often, people mistakenly believe that empathy equates with compassion. While empathy often can lead to compassion, some people can use empathy to understand another person but don't feel for them. In fact, sociopaths can employ empathy to exploit others.


Grammar and Mechanics

No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

Click to continue.

Change of Plans

Change of Plans

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, there's been a sudden and unforeseen change of plans.

5 Things to Know When Writing About the Music Industry

5 Things to Know When Writing About the Music Industry

Author Ashley M. Coleman gives you her top five tricks for writing about the music industry—even if you're not an industry expert.

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

From planning ahead to staying late, Alison Hill shares 10 tips for journalists while covering events as a freelancer.

From Script

Character Studies, Writing the Immigrant Experience, and Six Adaptation Steps Before You Adapt a Book (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, navigate different character study approaches in your writing, and tracking emotional journeys.

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Author Lora Senf discusses how one chilling text message led her to writing her new middle grade horror novel, The Clackity.

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Critically acclaimed novelist Katrina Leno discusses the process of bringing her childhood memories to magical life in her new young adult novel, Sometime in Summer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: A New Podcast Episode, "Your Story" Prompt, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our latest episode of "Writer's Digest Presents," the new "Your Story" prompt, and more!

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

You might have heard the term, especially if you’re in online fandoms, but what exactly is fan fiction? Managing Editor Moriah Richard explains.