Complicated or complex?

07 Mar

DictionariesThis one was suggested by Neil Langley posting on my main Troublesome Pairs post.

So what is the difference between complex and complicated? Is there one?

The answer is that their meanings overlap. The main dictionaries in the US and UK (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, etc.) define complex using the word complicated, so the adjective complex means made up of many different parts, or complicated. Complicated means consisting of many interconnecting parts, or intricate. So very similar.

The noun complication moves on to describe something that makes something complicated, a complex state (there we go again) and in medical terminology, a disease or condition that is secondary to the main one but makes it worse.

Complex as a noun can mean a few more things – an interlinked system (the military-industrial complex), and then Oxford links but Merriam-Webster lists separately, a group of interlinked buildings. It also has a meaning in psychology of a group of emotionally significant but repressed ideas which cause an abnormal kind of behaviour or an abnormal state (a persecution complex), and by extension, a more pop-psych preoccupation or exaggerated reaction (I have a complex about spiders). There’s a chemical meaning to do with connections, too.

So the nouns vary, but if you’re describing something made up of lots of different things that might be a bit confusing or intricate, it can be complicated OR complex.

Having done some rooting about, I did discover this Washington Post resource claiming to delineate a difference.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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5 responses to “Complicated or complex?

  1. Steve Dunham

    March 13, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for this. I see these words often as an editor and didn’t appreciate the nuances. I also work as a volunteer hosptial chaplain, so I am happy to see the medical definitions too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      March 13, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      I’m glad you found this one useful. I thought the two words were more different than they are, to be honest!


  2. Neil Langley

    February 5, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks for clearing this up (I think?!) I As a Biology teacher who has the largest class dictionary in my school, I regularly correct language (e.g. Can I vs. May I). I was taught the following: Complex – made up of many parts and Complicated – difficult to understand. The Washington Post seems to support this simplification? With lower ability classes I use the difference between Lego Duplo and Lego Technic as an analogy.


    • Neil Langley

      February 5, 2019 at 7:08 pm

      Dang, didn’t proof read that did I?


    • Liz Dexter

      February 6, 2019 at 7:38 am

      That’s a good analogy, thank you! I hope it’s clear in this piece, too – some of them are quite difficult to pick apart!



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