Published: Tuesday May 22, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday August 2, 2013 MYT 7:48:39 PM

Shades of meaning

Can you distinguish between the words ‘neglect’, ‘ignore’ and ‘disregard’? Some words may have similar definitions, but they often carry different nuances.

I AM firm, you are stubborn, he is pig-headed.”

Many of you would recognise this hilarious old quotation to illustrate how subjective we can be in our judgements of ourselves and others. All three adjectives – firm, stubborn and pigheaded – mean “determined not to change one’s mind”, but they have different shades of meaning or verbal nuances.

While “firm” sounds positive, “stubborn” is disapproving and “pig-headed” is downright insulting. I haven’t heard the last adjective used very much nowadays, but its figurative meaning is “having the mental qualities ascribed to a pig; obstinate; stupid; perverse.” (OED)

Words have meanings, but words with similar meanings also have nuances that differentiate them from one another, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly as in the above quotation.

A reader called Azaidatul asked for my help in differentiating between the meanings of three such words: “neglect”, “ignore” and “disregard”. She said she couldn’t do it even after consulting an online dictionary and translator. She wanted me to give some examples of how these words are used.

Nearly all online dictionaries not only give definitions of words, but also examples of usage. Perhaps even these don’t make the distinctions between those words clear enough to the learner. It is a good idea to consult more than one dictionary.

As for online translators, they can give us an idea of what a word, a sentence or a passage means, but are not to be relied upon for accuracy. There’s nothing like a lot of reading to give us a feel for a language, which is an understanding of its nuances of meaning.

To get back to the words “neglect”, “ignore “and “disregard”, what they have in common is the concept of not paying attention to someone or something.

To “neglect” someone or something is to not pay attention to him or it when you should, or as the OALD puts it, “to fail to take care of somebody/something.” Thus we sometimes hear of a child being neglected by her parents, or an unoccupied house being neglected by its owner.

In both cases, the absence or lack of attention is long-term, and we can usually see the results of the neglect in a disturbed child and a dilapidated house respectively.

This is in contrast to “ignore”, which is usually one instance of not paying attention to somebody or something. We may ignore someone’s insulting remark to us, for example, by not responding to it or pretending not to have heard it. And someone we know may ignore us at a party by not greeting us or pretending not to know us. “Neglect” cannot be used in such contexts.

“Disregard” differs from “ignore” in that we can’t disregard somebody, only something, and this something is usually abstract. For example, someone may disregard his mother’s advice on a certain matter, i.e. not pay attention to it, because he doesn’t agree with it.

Or we can say that our Mat Rempits (illegal motorcycle racers) are disregarding traffic laws by racing along highways at night, at speeds well above the legal limit. They pay no attention to traffic laws because they don’t respect them. Hence, “disregard”, like “neglect” are usually negative in meaning, while “ignore” need not always be negative.

Another reader, who uses the pseudonym “Confused”, did not bring up the subject of verbal nuances, but an interesting difference of opinion in classifying the word “running” used in such sentences as “I have not slept for three nights running.”

He pointed out that while the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004) considers it a postpositional adjective, the Longman Dictionary Of Contemporary English (1987) classifies it as an adverb.

I decided to look up “running” (in the above context) in more dictionaries and found that the following dictionaries classify it as an adjective: the Collins English Dictionary online, the online Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, as well as all the Oxford dictionaries, including the online Oxford Advanced American Dictionary.

On the other side are ranged those dictionaries which classify “running” as an adverb. They are the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary, and the Longman Dictionary Of Contemporary English mentioned by Confused.

My opinion is that both sides are correct. Whether or not “running” in that context is an adjective or an adverb depends on what one thinks it means. Those dictionaries that classify “running” as a postpositive adjective (an adjective used after the noun it qualifies), define “running” as “consecutive”, “successive”, etc. So the sentence given by Confused, “I have not slept for three nights running.”, can be rephrased as “I have not slept for three consecutive nights.”

But this sentence can also be rephrased as “I have not slept for three nights consecutively.”, in which “running” is replaced by the adverb “consecutively” and is therefore an adverb. Among the synonyms provided for “running” by the dictionaries that classify it as an adverb are “consecutively”, “in a row” and “successively”.

This then is a grey area between adjective and adverb. However, it doesn’t really matter what part of speech “running” is if you are just using the language and not analysing it. Just use it at the end of the sentence, and you should be all right!

A knowledge of grammar is however necessary when you are trying to decide whether to use “that” or “which” in a relative clause. You have to know the difference between an “identifying clause” and a “non-identifying clause”. Reader Zuraida wanted to know why the word “which” and not “that” is the right word to choose in the sentence: “The city of Dresden, which was virtually burnt to the ground during the war, now flourished again.” She had found this in a set of questions with answers in an issue of Reader’s Digest.

The answer is, because the relative clause “which was virtually burnt to the ground during the war” is a non-identifying clause which must begin with a “which” if it refers to something (not somebody). The clause is called non-identifying because the subject of the sentence need not be identified by it. The sentence can just be written as “The city of Dresden now flourished again.”, with the clause only giving additional information about Dresden.

If the sentence had read “Dresden is a city that/which I would like to visit.”, the relative clause here would be an identifying one. “Dresden is a city.” doesn’t tell us much, but the city is identified by the relative clause “that/which I would like to visit”. An identifying clause can begin with either “that” or “which”.

> Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at

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