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Reliable vs. Dependable: What’s the Difference?

Many English words carry the same meaning, sometimes with slight variations or differing connotations attached to them. When talking about how consistently someone or something can perform, it’s easy to get confused about whether to describe it as reliable or dependable. Let’s take a closer look.

The difference between reliable and dependable is that dependable is a more decisive distinction of reliability. Dependability is sure to happen when really needed instead of merely happening consistently, as reliablility implies. Both words have near-identical meanings, with dictionaries even using their definitions to define each other.

This distinction is one of the many small nuances that make English interesting — that two very different words can carry such a similar meaning. In the rest of this article, we will delve into the root meanings between the two terms and how to decide when it would be better to use one over the other.

Reliable vs. Dependable

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This magnitude of danger means that the critical difference between reliability and dependability is how reliant you are on the outcome.

There are, of course, some areas of crossover — one person doing their job could have big or small consequences, so you might describe them as reliable or dependable, depending on the circumstances.

In this way, we can see reliability as how well someone or something can perform a task you’ve assigned them. 

This assigned task can often be something within your control that you could get done without the other person’s help, but the reliable assistance of another makes completing the task easier or more efficient.

For example, every manager appreciates having a reliable team of employees around them to get the job done. Still, they could also get the task done themselves if delegation wasn’t possible.

When we depend on a particular outcome, the control is out of our hands, and a failure would carry far more impactful consequences.

To use an old saying, when one thing depends on another, you “put all your eggs in one basket,” so you would hope that your faith is well-placed!

Can Something Be Both Reliable and Dependable?

Would it be possible for something to be both reliable and dependable at the same time? In short, yes. Since the two words relate so closely in meaning, it isn’t impossible to describe something reliable as dependable, and vice versa.

The one distinction we made above is mostly academic and relies on having an intimate understanding of the situation that you describe. There are times when this isn’t possible, and, as a communicator, you must pick one.

The case of reliable versus dependable is not an isolated one, though — the English language is full of words linked in meaning. There are some 2,133 other ways of saying something is “reliable” and 1,361 alternatives to “dependable” (source).

So let’s take a look at why that is. 

A Word About “Reliability”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes “reliable” as “suitable or fit to be relied on, or dependable” (source).

Again, the fact that the dictionary mentions dependability when defining the word “reliable” shows how closely related these two words are.

To rely on something is to put your trust in it confidently.

We can say this of both people and objects, such as a “reliable car,” which would be something you drive without fear of it breaking down, and a “reliable coworker” would be someone you can count on to do what the boss needs.

Therein lies the subtle difference, which we will further detail in the below section about dependability. Many often use reliability to describe a non-critical function, like a worker fulfilling a role their boss hired them for or created for them.

If something were unreliable, it would mean it performs that task erratically.

For example, a damaged charger cable might be unreliable and only work in certain conditions, meaning you cannot count on it performing its function each time you plug it in.

As the examples highlighted, reliability is not limited to either a person or a thing; we can use it to describe humans, objects, and abstract concepts alike — so long as they do what we expect of them consistently.

A Word About “Dependability”

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes the word “dependable” as something “that can be relied on to do what you want or need” (source).

Once again, notice that reliability is part of the definition, highlighting just how similar in meaning the two words are.

We use the word “dependable” more commonly to describe people, though it does still apply to inanimate or abstract objects, too.

For example, one could say that the public transport in your area is dependable if you experience it as consistently on time when you need it.

However, it’s the predominant usage of the word “dependable” that highlights the main difference between dependability and reliability. 

When something is dependent on another thing, we understand it to have a conditional relationship. This dependency means that one thing needs to happen for the other to happen as well.

For this reason, we use “dependability” to describe things that carry more serious consequences — sometimes even meaning the difference between life or death.

For instance, you must be able to depend on a ladder to support your weight before you climb it, or else you would be in danger.

Similarly, you would hope the paramedic who comes to your aid is dependable to provide you with the emergency care you would need in that situation.

Correct Usage of Reliable and Dependable

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Now that you understand the definitions of “reliable” and “dependable,” as well as how synonyms work, here are additional examples to help solidify your understanding of when to use either.

I am looking to purchase a reliable fridge.

We might consider a fridge reliable when it keeps our food fresh and cool. Though food is critical for surviving, you would only need to rely on it to do its job instead of depending on it. You could always use food that doesn’t require refrigeration!

I chose to have my operation done at this hospital because of the nursing staff’s reputation as dependable.

Again, performing one’s job does not necessarily make you dependable, but when it comes to caring for people and sometimes saving lives, that does make a difference. 

Since they mention their operation, one assumes the debilitation of the communicator for a period of time, making the nursing staff’s role critical to their survival. Thus, their reputation for doing that job well makes them dependable.

I’m looking for a reliable partner to attend dance lessons with me.

In this example, the author uses “reliable” correctly in two ways.

Firstly, “reliable” would mean that they can rely upon the dance partner to attend the lessons with them.

Secondly, “reliable” also speaks to the partner’s skills and quality for which the communicator is looking. Perhaps there are lifts or other technical aspects in the dancing that requires trust, so they specify the need for that quality in their prospective partners.

The government has reached an agreement with a dependable vaccine producer.

Monetary dependence can also be a part of the decision between using “reliable” or “dependable.”

In this example, the government depends on the producer to manufacture vaccines, not just to save recipients’ lives but also to recover the investment they used to secure the vaccines from them in the first place.

In the above example, the producer is undoubtedly reliable to be in their position, but it is the faith placed in them in this agreement that has made them dependable.

Synonyms and Word Selection

Words like these sharing similar meanings are known as synonyms. In some cases, synonyms are interchangeable — meaning you can use any of the synonyms of a particular word to get your point across (source).

An excellent example of this is the synonyms “fast” and “quick.” Both words refer to doing something in haste, and there is no difference in the meaning of your sentence if you use one or the other.  

However, there are other cases when synonyms have slight differences in their meanings, and communicators use these differences intentionally to convey their intended message. For another example of this, check out our article on difference versus distinction.

These are much more common than the first instance since it’s unusual for two words to have the exact same meaning.

Let’s say that you wanted to describe an unpleasant odor. There are multiple ways of saying this — one of them would be to say that something smells.

However, to make a more emphatic statement about how bad it smells, you could also say that it stinks or even reeks.

In this way, the communicator constructs a sentence that conveys their desired meaning, including the strength of the smell they’re describing. This additional meaning could, for example, show their distaste for the scent they’re describing.

This case is similar to the words “reliable” and “dependable.” To describe performance consistency, you could say that something is reliable to show that it is trustworthy in performing that task.

In contrast, something that is dependable is something you can count on in a life-or-death situation.

Which Synonym to Use?

There typically isn’t a “wrong” answer when deciding which synonym to use in your sentence, only words that offer a more precise representation of what you’d like to say.

The choice of which word to use falls under the creative license given to allow you to covey your intended meaning.

Much like an artist picks the colors and mediums they used in an art piece carefully, so too does a wordsmith choose their words carefully to craft the meaning of their sentence.

So, while picking a synonym might feel daunting at first, particularly to second-language learners, we recommend that you research your possible word choices to select the most fitting word in your sentence.

In doing this research, you should also consider the following:

Connotations

A connotation the meaning that certain attached words suggest. They aren’t always explicit and typically require a relatively broad understanding of the language to pick up small usage nuances.

For example, “pretty” and “attractive” are two ways of describing someone’s appearance. However, there are circumstances where using “attractive” is improper, such as when describing family members.

This impropriety is because “attractive” carries the connotation of being physically appealing — more so than merely describing someone as “pretty.”

Then, one could say that “attractive” carries a romantic connotation, which one should use carefully so as not to offend anyone.

It is the communicator’s responsibility to choose their words carefully, particularly when using them in public, since one does not want to offend another by using hurtful or improper words carelessly.

Double Meanings

Picking the right word sometimes involves intentionally avoiding others that may confuse your message. Words often carry various meanings and, if used ambiguously, can lead to misunderstanding.

For example, let’s say you wanted to describe an enjoyable hike you went on but also sought to warn a friend that it took longer than you anticipated.

You could describe the hike as either “lengthy” or “stretched” — both appear in the thesaurus when looking at ways to communicate your desired meaning.

However, where “lengthy” simply conveys the path’s physical distance and the time required to traverse it, someone may construe “stretched” as referring to the quality of the path, potentially meaning that it is dangerous instead.

These are just two ways where our word choice subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, steers the underlying message of the sentence we construct.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

So, when you’re unsure of how to say something or would like to make sure you’re communicating clearly, it’s important to consult useful study aids such as a dictionary, style guide, or a thesaurus to ensure you’re conveying your message how you’d like to come across.

Final Thoughts

The words “reliable” and “dependable” are similar in meaning, and we can often interchange them with one another, as is the case with several other synonyms; however, one could argue that we generally use  “dependable” in more serious circumstances.

This article explored what it means to be both “reliable” and “dependable” and in which instances to use them.

As closely related synonyms with not much between them, this is less an exercise of right or wrong but, rather, how to correctly express yourself should you ever find a situation such as those we’ve described.