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pen·​ance ˈpe-nən(t)s How to pronounce penance (audio)
: an act of self-abasement, mortification (see mortification sense 3), or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin
He did charitable work as a penance.
: a sacramental rite that is practiced in Roman, Eastern, and some Anglican churches and that consists of private confession, absolution, and a penance directed by the confessor (see confessor sense 3a)
: something (such as a hardship or penalty) resembling an act of penance (as in compensating for an offense)
who go on cheap camping trips instead of real vacations as a kind of penanceJudith Thurman


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penanced; penancing

transitive verb

: to impose penance on

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How Should You Use penance?

Penance as a form of apology for a mistake can be either voluntary or ordered by someone else. Many religions include penance among the ways in which believers can show repentance or regret for a misdeed. The Christian season of Lent, 40 days long, is traditionally a time for doing penance.

Examples of penance in a Sentence

Noun He did charitable work as a penance.
Recent Examples on the Web
For many people, Lent is associated with giving up some luxury, like chocolate, as a sacrificial form of penance and self-discipline. Jim Higgins, Journal Sentinel, 12 Feb. 2024 Scholars have assumed that religious superstition overwhelmed scientific impulse and the church dictated what constituted legitimate healing – namely, prayer, anointing with holy oil, miracles of the saints and penance for sin. Discover Magazine, 7 Nov. 2023 Creative efforts Returning to a place of trust and acceptance in the fashion industry required Galliano to take a pilgrimage of penance. Trey Taylor, CNN, 13 Mar. 2024 Their father put stones in his shoes and walked mile after mile after mile, in penance for whatever sins had led to such losses. Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 11 Mar. 2024 The season, including Ash Wednesday, is a time for penance, charity and fasting, according to the USCCB. The Enquirer, 5 Jan. 2024 Ash Wednesday, when Catholics all over the world observe the start of the 40-day Lenten period of penance, follows the lunar calendar, and so both days occasionally coincide. Jose R. Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic, 14 Feb. 2024 Faith & values Fridays during Lent are considered a day of penance as Jesus Christ was crucified and died on a Friday. Nicole Pelletiere, Fox News, 17 Feb. 2024 Medieval theologians took the insatiable lusts of women very seriously: as a friend pointed out, the procedure was apparently considered two thirds as bad as accidentally killing one’s baby, which is discussed two items down in the Decretum, for which three years of penance were prescribed. Mary Wellesley, The New York Review of Books, 15 Feb. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'penance.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Noun and Verb

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Medieval Latin poenitentia penitence

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1


1580, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of penance was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near penance

Cite this Entry

“Penance.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


: an act showing sorrow or regret for sin
: a sacrament consisting of regret for sin, confession to a priest, an act showing sorrow or regret ordered by the confessor, and forgiveness

More from Merriam-Webster on penance

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