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Clever vs. Cunning: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 29, 2023
"Clever" implies resourcefulness and quick-thinking, often positively; "Cunning" suggests shrewdness with a deceitful or manipulative connotation.

Key Differences

Cleverness is associated with intelligence and the ability to solve problems quickly and creatively. Cunning, on the other hand, often implies a similar level of intelligence but used for deceitful or manipulative purposes.
In literature, a clever character is admired for their resourcefulness and wit. Conversely, a cunning character may be viewed suspiciously, as their intelligence is used for self-serving or dubious ends.
In everyday language, calling someone clever usually denotes respect for their mental agility. Calling someone cunning, however, often carries an undertone of mistrust, highlighting their capability for deception.
Educational contexts tend to foster and praise cleverness for its role in learning and innovation. Cunning, conversely, is typically discouraged due to its association with cheating or unethical behavior.
In problem-solving, being clever is about finding innovative solutions. Being cunning, in contrast, might involve bending rules or manipulating situations to one's advantage.

Comparison Chart


Positive; admired intelligence
Negative; deceitful intelligence

Usage in Literature

Heroic, resourceful characters
Sly, manipulative characters

Context in Conversation

Complimenting intelligence
Implying deceit or manipulation

In Problem Solving

Innovative solutions
Manipulative strategies

Educational Viewpoint

Encouraged for learning
Discouraged due to ethics

Clever and Cunning Definitions


Characterized by wit and ingenuity.
She made a clever remark that amused everyone.


Skillful in deception or trickery.
The cunning fox outwitted the hunter.


Intellectually quick and resourceful.
She was clever enough to solve the puzzle in seconds.


Cleverly achieving one's aims by indirect or deceitful methods.
He used a cunning strategy to win the game.


Showing inventiveness or originality.
Her clever invention won the science fair.


Showing sly intelligence, especially in deceit.
Her cunning plan secured her the deal.


Apt at learning or understanding things.
He's clever with languages and speaks three fluently.


Artfully subtle or shrewd.
His cunning eyes missed nothing.


Skilled at doing or achieving something; talented.
He's clever at mathematics.


Ingeniously deceitful.
The spy used his cunning nature to gather information.


Mentally quick and original; bright
A clever student.


Marked by or given to artful subtlety and deceptiveness.


Executed with or exhibiting ingenuity.


Can "cunning" have a positive connotation?

Rarely; it's usually associated with deceit.

Can a solution be both clever and cunning?

Yes, if it's ingenious and manipulative.

Is "clever" always a compliment?

Yes, it typically praises someone's intelligence or skill.

Do children's stories often feature cunning characters?

Yes, often as antagonists or tricky figures.

Are animals described as cunning?

Yes, especially when they're seen as sly or deceptive.

Are clever people always cunning?

No, cleverness doesn't imply deceit.

Is cunning a form of intelligence?

Yes, but it's often intelligence used unethically.

Is being clever valued in education?

Absolutely, as it relates to learning and problem-solving.

Can "cunning" be a trait of a hero?

Rarely; it's more common in villains.

Is being cunning illegal?

Not necessarily, but it can involve unethical behavior.

Can machines or technology be clever?

Yes, in the sense of being well-designed or efficient.

Do synonyms for "clever" carry the same positivity?

Generally, yes, like "smart" or "intelligent".

Can businesses operate cunningly?

Yes, but this can lead to ethical dilemmas.

Is cunning a survival skill?

In some contexts, it can be seen as such.

Is it better to be clever or cunning?

Generally, being clever is more positively regarded.

Can one become more clever?

Yes, through learning and experience.

Does "clever" imply creativity?

Often, as it involves thinking in new ways.

Are all cunning acts unethical?

Not all, but many involve questionable ethics.

Can "cunning" be used in a playful sense?

Sometimes, in a light-hearted or teasing context.

Are "cunning" people trustworthy?

Often not, due to the association with deceit.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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