Even though they aren’t true homophones, “compel” vs. “impel” can confuse many readers. Due to their similar sounding pronunciation, many writers can easily mix them up! Additionally, they are especially challenging as they both have a meaning that revolves around the idea of persuasion/action.
What Does “Compel” Mean?
“Compel” is a term that means “to force someone to yield to another.” In other words, it refers to the process of constraining someone so that they must agree with or complete tasks for someone else. For instance:
- Why do I have to compel you to clean the room?
- I must compel the insurance broker to file my claim.
- Although your argument is compelling, there are a few confusing points.
What Does “Impel” Mean?
“Impel” is a word that refers to a strong motive, force, energy, or incentive. In contrast to the forced actions and negative connotations associated with “compel,” this word has a neutral meaning. In most cases, “impel” tends to be a word used to describe the motivation and energy behind people’s actions. For example:
- The water impelled the bugs to run away.
- I don’t know what impelled you to act so crazy yesterday!
- Strange things impel her.
Collins said it was conceivable that lawyers acting for alleged victims would take legal action to compel police forces to hand over their files on Savile. – The Guardian
The Security Council could compel co-operation from all UN members, and such an approach might win support in the Arab world, as well as the West, especially if Islamic judges are involved. – The Economist
What would impel Britain to help Saudi Arabia onto an important UN human rights body when it is plain to all that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is lamentably poor? – Independent
Demons that afflict men include the rākṣasas, grotesque and hideous beings of various shapes who haunt cemeteries, impel men to perform foolish acts, and attack sadhus (saintly men), and piśacas, beings who haunt places where violent deaths have occurred. – Encyclopedia Britannica
In the end, “compel” refers to a forced action or yield, whereas “impel” refers to a driving force or motivation. To help you remember, you can think of “compel” as a negative motivator and “impel” as a positive/neutral motivator.
Related: We have a whole section on similar words here.