Relation vs Relationship: Do You Know the Difference?

Relation vs Relationship: Do You Know the Difference?

Today you’re going to find out the difference between relation and relationship. Also check out Family Vocabulary: Family Members in English.

Quick! Answer these questions:

  1. Do we say “I’m in a relation,” or “I’m in a relationship”?
  2. Are you visiting relatives or relationships next week?
  3. Is there a relationship between the sun and Earth? Or is there a relation between the sun and Earth?

The words relation and relationship can be a bit confusing.

But they don’t have to be. Read on to find out the differences.

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Meaning of relation

We use relation to talk about family members

Relation can mean “member of your family”

Relation and relative sometimes have the same meaning.

So you can say, “I can’t go paintballing with you this weekend — I’ve got to go and visit my relatives.”

Or you can say, “I can’t go paintballing with you this weekend — I’ve got to go and visit my relations.”

The difference?

There isn’t any difference. Some people prefer to use relative, and some people prefer relation.

★ The phrase “no relation” can help with confusing situations

We also have the phrase “no relation.”

We use it to stop people getting confused when two people who are not related have the same surname.

You can simply add the phrase “no relation” after the name that might be confusing.

“James Thompson was in court today accusing Cindy Thompson, no relation, of stealing his rabbit.”

“When I was in Washington, I met a politician called Angello Trump, no relation.”

You can also use the question “Any relation?” to ask whether someone is related to someone else with the same name.

For example, let’s say that you want to join the David Attenborough Fan Club.

And why not? I mean, David Attenborough is kind of fantastic:

David Attenborough sitting by the sea

So you go to the David Attenborough Fan Club office and meet the fan club chairwoman.

She tells you her name, and you’re a bit surprised.

Her name is Charlene Attenborough.

So is she one of David’s relatives?

I'm Charlene Attenborough. Any relation?

The word relations can describe how well people get on

★ We use relations for bigger groups of people

We can use the word relations to describe how good things are between groups of people.

We usually use it for large groups of people, like countries, companies and their shareholders, or extended families.

So we can talk about how a company needs to improve relations with its shareholders.

Or how relations between India and Scotland are excellent at the moment.

Notice that we say “relations with …” or “relations between … and …”

It’s also worth noting that this word is quite formal. You’ll see it in the paper and hear it on the news a lot.

★ Common collocations with relations

Describing how well groups of people get on with each other can be a sensitive subject sometimes.

So for these cases, there are a lot of collocations with the word relations:

We use the phrase “race relations” to describe how good or bad things are between different races in a country.

If two countries get annoyed with each other and decide not to talk to each other anymore (as if they were four-year-old children), then we can say that they have cut off (or severed) diplomatic relations.

Business relations” between countries refers to how well the countries do business together.

And if you’re a big, bad, evil corporation that does big, bad, evil things, you’re going to need a good PR team.

And what does PR stand for?

Public relations, of course!

They’re the people who try to make sure everyone sees the corporation as the good guys. Even when they kill puppies. With oil.

Use “in relation to” to compare or connect two things

★ Use “in relation to” to compare two things

Let’s say you have a fantastic job working in PR. You’re earning big bucks.

But you’re not satisfied.

You want to do something more interesting and more fulfilling.

So you quit your job and follow your lifelong dream of training dogs for Hollywood.

A much more enjoyable job, right?

But when you compare the salary to your old job, it’s much lower.

So you can say your new job pays much less in relation to your old one.

It’s the same as “compared to.”

“The population of the city is very big in relation to its size.”

“Cats have very small brains in relation to how much they can actually remember. My cat has never forgiven me about the time I ate her catnip.”

★ Use “in relation to” to connect two ideas

“In relation to” can also connect two ideas or topics.

It’s another, more formal way of saying about.

Let’s take an example.

Here’s Nancy. Nancy’s a popular DJ.

Stick figure called Nancy

But yesterday she was being interviewed on live TV and told everyone that she believed that the world was flat and that it was created by singing elephants.

I believe that the world is flat and that it was created by singing elephants.

Now everyone wants to know if that’s really what Nancy believes.

So of course her PR team needs to step in to stop her looking any more ridiculous.

No, my client will not be answering questions in relation to the singing elephants comment.

This phrase is definitely quite formal and can be especially useful in academic situations:

“There have been no convincing theories in relation to successful time travel.”

“These plants need a lot of extra attention in the winter, especially in relation to water levels.”

Meaning of relationship

The word relationship is used in a similar way to the word relation.

But there are some important differences.

Use relationship to describe the situation with your partner

★ “In a relationship” can describe your status

Do you remember when Facebook started, and it was only available in English?

A lot of my students picked up some interesting vocabulary in those days — words like poke and wave.

Some of them also learned the phrase “relationship status” as well as the various possible options for “relationship status.”

There were, of course, the classics: single, married, engaged.

There was the interesting one: it’s complicated.

And there was “in a relationship.”

Or even “in a relationship with Barry McBarry” (or whoever you were in a relationship with).

When you say you’re in a relationship, you might be married; you might just be partners. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the love that grows between you day by day, right?

★ You can also talk about a relationship as an abstract concept

When two people get together and become partners, sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t go that well.

When we want to talk about it more subjectively, we can talk about the relationship as a concept.

“Their relationship kept getting worse and worse.”

This reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

If a relationship is going badly, it might be time to get off Facebook and work on the relationship.

The word relationship can describe how well people get on

“Hang on a minute! You said the same thing about the word relations!” I can hear you say.

And you’re right.

But there are some differences.

★ We use relationship for smaller groups of people

As we saw above, relations can describe how things are between countries, cities, large families, companies, etc.

But when we want to make things more personal — more human — we use the word relationship instead.

Interestingly, we often use relationship with words like good or bad.

“We make sure that we maintain a fantastic relationship with our clients.”

“The relationship between the brothers is terrible at the moment.”

★ Common phrases with relationship

When a business relationship starts well, you can say that you’ve established a good relationship.

Then, to make sure things just keep getting better, you can build up the relationship or strengthen the relationship.

Sometimes doing this can take time.

Perhaps you’ve been working on building a relationship with one of your colleagues for a while, but it hasn’t quite happened.

Then one weekend you have to go on a business trip together. You both do a great job at securing a contract, and you enjoy a nice dinner afterwards, where you talk about future trips and working together more.

That weekend where it all came together? That was when you cemented your relationship.

Since then, you’ve worked with that colleague very well — you’ve got a good working relationship.

When you have different roles in the relationship (like a doctor and a patient, or a parent and a child), it’s common to say the roles before the word relationship.

So, you can talk about a doctor-patient relationship, a parent-child relationship, or a student-teacher relationship.

You can use relationship to talk about how things and people are connected

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina, then Barry forgets to brush his teeth in Dundee.

We all know everyone else in the world through just seven degrees of separation. That means that I know you through (at the most distant) my friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s friend.

And let’s not forget: we’re ALL related!

Everything is connected!

But of course, some things are more closely connected than others.

We can use the phrase “relationship between” to describe (or ask about) how (or how closely) two things are connected.

“There’s a very strong relationship between a plant-based diet and a longer life.”

The relationship between punk music and politics is unbreakable!

That’s it — now you should be able to use relation and relationship like a ninja!

But before we finish, can you answer these questions?

  1. Which country enjoys particularly good diplomatic relations with your country?
  2. How do you try to establish a good relationship with people at work?
  3. What’s the relationship between a pencil and a cassette tape?

Answer in the comments!

Also, if you want to help me out and spread the knowledge, please take two seconds to click on that SHARE button!

28 thoughts on “Relation vs Relationship: Do You Know the Difference?

  1. 1- In my opinion, there always has been good diplomatic relations between Germany and Spain, and for no special reasons.
    2- I always tried to be kind to everyone (The past tense is because I’m currently retired)

    3- Both are tools that are used to transmit messages. (Maybe a bit behind the times)

    1. Great answers!

      1 – That’s interesting. I can see no apparent reason apart from the fact that, why not? We should all get along, right?
      2 – That’s a great policy.
      3 – Brilliant! Totally not what I was thinking, but it’s a smart answer!

  2. This was hilarious. I really laughed my head out.
    1. Tunisia maintains a strong relation with France (or may be it’s the other way around seen the interest of the latter in Tunisia resources.)
    2. I cement relationships with my colleagues through being genuine and consistent.
    3. I guess I know what you mean; is it not spinning the K7 with the pencil… Frankly, I don’t know how to put that in English.
    Thank you Gabriel.

    1. Haha! I’m happy you enjoyed it, Mehdi. Hope you can get your head back on …

      1. I know what you mean … I lived in Tunisia when I was a kid. It was interesting that almost everyone could speak French as well as Arabic. They’re both official languages, right?
      2. Good strategy! I think consistency is really underrated.
      3. Hmmmm … What’s the K7? I’m interested to hear what your thoughts are here … 🙂

      1. Did you? Amazing. Actually, it’s true that most people speak or at least understand French, but it’s not an official language.
        7 in French is sept, pronounced /set/, and in that era most people would write K7 instead of cassette as both are pronounced the same way. It was a typo; I apologize for this. 🙂 A pencil was used back then to spin the cassette tape.

        1. Wow! That is so cool — so this “K7” was a sort of 80s/90s Tunisan French orthographic slang? I love little pieces of information like this!

          Also — you’re the first to get the “secret” answer to question number 3. Congratulations! 🙂

          1. Thank you for your explanations. I won’t repeat the same answers as everyone else; it would be redundant.
            As for the pencil & cassette, every time I tried that, I sent the cassette across the room- LOL!
            Question: Would either relation to or relationship to be correct when correlating mail-in voting with postal delivery? Thanks.

          2. I happened to stumble on your little exchange with Medhi who never bothered to give you an answer to your question related to the French phrase “k7” for video tape. Not too late I hope ?

            I don’t blame him, the Internet makes it hard to keep one’s train of thoughts and I’b be damned if I did not forget to answer to other people a bunch of times myself !

            Anyway. “k7” is not “a sort of 80s/90s Tunisan French orthographic slang”. It is strictly a pronunciation thing. Just like English speaking people use “4 U” instead of “four you”.

            Cassette (video tape) is prononced the same way as “K7”, that is all there is ! 🙂

  3. 1. Argentina has kept a strong bond with Spain all its life but truly we also have an excellent relationship with the U.S.A. too.

    2. I´ve always had a kindly professional relationship with my students.

    3. Both are different tools to send and receive messages but they´re quite old fashioned nowadays.

    2 I´ve always had a kindly professional relationship with my students.

  4. HI GABY, Talking about relation and relationship.. II really enjoyed reading it. Relationship is a kind of a deeper
    understanding where we get to know the people whom we fancy better. A Relation can be a cousin whom we are connected through family ties.

  5. Right now, unfortunately, the US doesn’t seem to have good relations with any country.
    I try to talk as little as possible to workmates and listen more than they do.
    A pencil can tighten the loose tape in a cassette by winding one side in the middle hole while holding the other hole.

    1. Yes — America has seen better days in terms of international relations, that’s for sure.

      And YES! You’re one of the only people who got “secret answer” about the cassette. Good work! 🙂

  6. Dear GABY,
    A nice reading on relation and relationship. Guess we are connected one to one through invisible threads.
    That is another kind of relationship. This is certainly an ocean. susan joshua.

    1. I would say neither!

      Your “ex” is just a person. I suppose that when you use that word, you’re describing the relationship between you.

      But it isn’t a status or a relation.

      1. Your reply, here, answers my earlier question.
        The sentence in which I used the discussed words is as follows:
        “Where is Oregon in relationship to these lawsuits?”
        I guess, in this instance, you could use either relation or relationship. I thought ‘relationship’ sounded a bit clunky. I was going to change it to ‘relation’; I still might.
        As for Mr. Will’s article, I think ‘relation’ captures his intent. Comedy is a long-lost cousin, coming home to roost with Politics. (Thank goodness for Google definitions or I would have had to crack open my dictionary. I learned the meaning of a lot of words I never heard of before… Thank You, Mr. Will.)

  7. In relation the last meaning you commented (You can use relationship to talk about how things and people are connected), I think there is a tendency in formal academic writing to replace “relationship” with “relation” to mean “connection”. ¿Any comments?

    1. Hi Rodolfo.

      I’ve just had a look at a British academic corpus. The results are interesting.

      The phrase “in relation to” appears to be the most common use of “relation” in this way.

      You are right, though — there are some uses of it in phrases like “the relation between humanism and the reformation.” However, the use of “relationship” for this kind of use appears to be much more prevalent.

      My instinct is that using “relation” like this might be falling out of fashion.

      Whether you use “relation” or “relationship” to mean “connection,” you’re probably safe. Just in danger of sounding a little archaic!

      1. Hi,
        I came to this discussion because I edit a lot of academic papers and am constantly adding the ship. This was further spurred by Will Self’s piece in yesterday’s Observer newspaper (and you do not get much more erudite than Will) who used relation a couple of times where I would have used relationship. Having read your discussion, I will continue with the longer form, now with a bit more confidence.

        1. Hi Giles,

          Well, this was a very tricky post to research. I think there will always be a little leeway here and there with these terms, but I think we more or less nailed it.

          Could you send me a link to that Will Self article? I’d hate to be disagreeing with such an intellectual giant as Will. 🙂

          1. I came to this thread for the exact same reason: I am studying for a master’s degree in English and whilst my tutors are not native speakers they have heaps of excellent qualifications AND are better read than I can claim to be. And they ALL use what I will from now on be calling ‘the Will Self relation’. On the one hand it drives me nuts because I would almost always use ‘relationship’ in the contexts I see it used, but on the other hand I am always interested in language change. So I have looked this up a couple of times and not yet found anything conclusive. I am, however, truly heartened to see a fellow native speaker who knows a fair bit about the English language seeming to be as surprised and flumoxed as I am 😉

            I’ve looked up the article mentioned above and it’s here:

            I don’t suppose you still have any links to the corpus research you did on this last year? Partly because I’d love to see it (and hadn’t been sensible enough to do this myself), and partly because your conclusion that it is decreasing surprised me. I’ve been getting the impression that it’s on the increase, based on my recent return to academia (I’m in my late forties and a native speaker of British English, but left the UK almost 15 years ago).

          2. Ha ha! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one!

            I’m afraid I didn’t keep a log of the corpus research for this. It would be interesting to see more research into this, though.

            And thanks for the link! 🙂

  8. When you are unhappy in a relationship, but cannot decide if you should accept your unhappiness, try to improve the relationship, or end the relationship.

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