adjective mas·ter·ful \ˈmas-tər-fəl\

Definition of masterful

  1. 1a :  inclined and usually competent to act as masterb :  suggestive of a domineering nature

  2. 2 :  having or reflecting the power and skill of a master


play \-fə-lē\ adverb



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masterful vs. masterly

Some commentators insist that use of masterful should be limited to its early “domineering” sense in order to preserve a distinction between it and masterly. The distinction is a modern one, excogitated by a 20th century pundit in disregard of the history of the word. Both words developed in a parallel manner but the earlier sense of masterly, equivalent to the “domineering” sense of masterful, dropped out of use. Since masterly had but one sense, the pundit opined that it would be tidy if masterful were likewise limited to one sense and he forthwith condemned use of masterful to mean “having mastery” as an error. This later sense of masterful, which is slightly older than the sense of masterly intended to replace it, has continued in reputable use all along; it cannot rationally be called an error.

Examples of masterful in a sentence

  1. His manner was masterful and abrupt.

  2. a masterful work of art

  3. He did a masterful job of staying out of trouble.

Did You Know?

Some commentators insist that masterful must only mean "domineering," reserving the "expert, skillful" sense for masterly. The distinction is a modern one. In earlier times, the terms were used interchangeably, with each having both the "domineering" and "expert" senses. The "domineering" sense of masterly fell into disuse around the 18th century, however, and in the 20th century the famous grammarian H. W. Fowler decided that masterful should be similarly limited to a single meaning. He summarily ruled that the "expert" definition of masterful was incorrect. Other usage writers followed his lead. But the "expert" meaning of masterful has continued to flourish in standard prose in spite of the disapproval, and, considering the sense's long history, it cannot really be called an error.

15th Century

First Known Use of masterful

15th century

Synonym Discussion of masterful

masterful, domineering, imperious, peremptory, imperative mean tending to impose one's will on others. masterful implies a strong personality and ability to act authoritatively. her masterful personality soon dominated the movement domineering suggests an overbearing or arbitrary manner and an obstinate determination to enforce one's will. children controlled by domineering parents imperious implies a commanding nature or manner and often suggests arrogant assurance. an imperious executive used to getting his own way peremptory implies an abrupt dictatorial manner coupled with an unwillingness to brook disobedience or dissent. given a peremptory dismissal imperative implies peremptoriness arising more from the urgency of the situation than from an inherent will to dominate. an imperative appeal for assistance

MASTERFUL Defined for English Language Learners


adjective mas·ter·ful \ˈmas-tər-fəl\

Definition of masterful for English Language Learners

  • : able to take control of people or situations

  • : very skillful

MASTERFUL Defined for Kids


adjective mas·ter·ful \ˈma-stər-fəl\

Definition of masterful for Students

  1. 1 :  tending to take control :  displaying authority

  2. 2 :  having or showing great skill a masterful sailor

Seen and Heard

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to criticize severely

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