Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary


verb dis·tin·guish \di-ˈstiŋ-(g)wish\

Simple Definition of distinguish

  • : to notice or recognize a difference between people or things

  • : to make (someone or something) different or special in some way

  • : to see or hear (someone or something) clearly

Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary

Full Definition of distinguish

  1. transitive verb
  2. 1 :  to perceive a difference in :  mentally separate <so alike they could not be distinguished>

  3. 2 a :  to mark as separate or different <a policy that distinguishes him from other candidates> b :  to separate into kinds, classes, or categories <distinguish words by their part of speech> c :  to give prominence or distinction to <distinguished themselves in music> d :  characterize <recipes distinguished by simplicity>

  4. 3 a :  discern <distinguished a light in the distance> b :  to single out :  take special notice of

  5. intransitive verb
  6. :  to perceive a difference <distinguish between right and wrong>

distinguishability play \-ˌstiŋ-(g)wi-shə-ˈbi-lə-tē\ noun
distinguishable play \-ˈstiŋ-(g)wi-shə-bəl\ adjective
distinguishably play \-blē\ adverb

Examples of distinguish in a sentence

  1. You're old enough to distinguish between fact and fantasy.

  2. I have trouble distinguishing between the two of them.

  3. I have trouble distinguishing the difference between the two of them.

  4. You should be able to distinguish fact from fantasy.

  5. The only thing that distinguishes the dogs is their bark.

  6. The singer's voice is what distinguishes the band.

  7. You can't distinguish the detail from this distance.

Origin of distinguish

alteration of Middle English distinguen, from Anglo-French distinguer, from Latin distinguere, literally, to separate by pricking, from dis- + -stinguere (akin to Latin instigare to urge on) — more at stick

First Known Use: 15th century

DISTINGUISH Defined for Kids


verb dis·tin·guish \di-ˈstiŋ-gwish\

Definition of distinguish for Students


  1. 1 :  to recognize one thing from others by some mark or quality <He distinguished the sound of the piano in the orchestra.>

  2. 2 :  to hear or see clearly <You can't distinguish her face in this photo.>

  3. 3 :  to know the difference <Can you distinguish between right and wrong?>

  4. 4 :  to set apart as different or special <She distinguished herself by heroic actions.>

Law Dictionary


transitive verb dis·tin·guish

Legal Definition of distinguish

  1. :  to identify or explain differences in or from <distinguished the cases on factual grounds>

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up distinguish? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to manage or play awkwardly

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!


Which of these is a synonym of nonplus?

disapprove perplex reduce soothe
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.