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Nonarbitrary vs. Arbitrary: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on October 5, 2023
Nonarbitrary vs. Arbitrary: "Nonarbitrary" pertains to decisions or actions based on a system or reason, while "Arbitrary" refers to those made without a discernible principle or system.

Key Differences

Both "Nonarbitrary" and "Arbitrary" are terms used to describe the nature of decisions or choices. Nonarbitrary decisions are those grounded in a specific rationale, logic, or system. In contrast, Arbitrary decisions are made without any specific system, reason, or structure in place.
A Nonarbitrary approach implies consistency, predictability, and an adherence to set standards. Such decisions can often be justified or explained through established protocols or reasoning. Arbitrary decisions, however, can be unpredictable, often seen as capricious or made on a whim.
When considering design or creation, Nonarbitrary elements are deliberately chosen, having specific purpose or meaning. Arbitrary elements, conversely, might appear random, without any underlying intention or specific reason for their inclusion or design.
In legal or administrative contexts, Nonarbitrary actions follow a clear set of guidelines or principles ensuring fairness and consistency. Arbitrary actions in these contexts could be perceived as unfair or discriminatory, as they lack a clear guiding principle and may differ without reason from one instance to another.
Language offers an illustrative example: the association between words and their meanings in most languages is Arbitrary, as there's no inherent reason a "dog" is called a "dog." However, onomatopoeic words can be seen as more Nonarbitrary, as their form is directly linked to the sound or action they represent, like "buzz" for the sound bees make.

Comparison Chart

Basis for Decision

Systematic, logical, or reason-based
Without a discernible system or reason


Predictable due to set standards
Unpredictable and may seem random

In Design/Creation

Deliberately chosen with a specific purpose
Appears random without underlying intention

In Legal/Administrative Use

Follows guidelines ensuring fairness and consistency
Lacks a guiding principle, might be perceived as unfair

In Language

Direct association between form and meaning (less common)
No inherent connection between form and meaning (more common)

Nonarbitrary and Arbitrary Definitions


Not based on random choice or personal whim.
The selection was nonarbitrary, following established criteria.*


Not grounded in principle or system.
Arbitrary rules can feel unjust and capricious.*


Decision or action based on reason or system.
The grading system is nonarbitrary, with clear guidelines for assessment.*


Lacking a clear plan, method, or system.
The story felt disjointed due to its arbitrary sequence of events.*


Characterized by consistent application or method.
Her approach to teaching is nonarbitrary and is anchored in research.*


Not consistent or systematic.
Arbitrary decisions often lead to confusion and unpredictability.*


Demonstrating purpose or intentionality.
The artist's nonarbitrary use of color evoked specific emotions.*


Based on whim or random choice without reason.
His selection seemed arbitrary, with no explanation given.*


Grounded in established principle.
The company's nonarbitrary pricing model is transparent and fair.*


Determined by chance, whim, or impulse.
The lottery is inherently arbitrary, as winners are chosen at random.*


Not arbitrary.


Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle
Stopped at the first motel we passed, an arbitrary choice.


Not subject to individual determination


Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference
The diet imposes overall calorie limits, but daily menus are arbitrary.


(Law) Relating to a decision made by a court or legislature that lacks a grounding in law or fact
An arbitrary penalty.


Not limited by law; despotic
The arbitrary rule of a dictator.


Based on individual discretion or judgment; not based on any objective distinction, perhaps even made at random.
Benjamin Franklin's designation of "positive" and "negative" to different charges was arbitrary.
The decision to use 18 years as the legal age of adulthood was arbitrary, as both age 17 and 19 were reasonable alternatives.


Determined by impulse rather than reason; heavy-handed.


(mathematics) Any, out of all that are possible.
The equation is true for an arbitrary value of x.


Determined by independent arbiter.


(linguistics) Not representative or symbolic; not iconic.


Anything arbitrary, such as an arithmetical value or a fee.


Depending on will or discretion; not governed by any fixed rules; as, an arbitrary decision; an arbitrary punishment.
It was wholly arbitrary in them to do so.
Rank pretends to fix the value of every one, and is the most arbitrary of all things.


Exercised according to one's own will or caprice, and therefore conveying a notion of a tendency to abuse the possession of power.
Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused licentiousness.


Despotic; absolute in power; bound by no law; harsh and unforbearing; tyrannical; as, an arbitrary prince or government.


Based on or subject to individual discretion or preference or sometimes impulse or caprice;
An arbitrary decision
The arbitrary rule of a dictator
An arbitrary penalty
Of arbitrary size and shape
An arbitrary choice
Arbitrary division of the group into halves


Is a nonarbitrary decision always better than an arbitrary one?

Not necessarily; context matters. Some situations may call for spontaneous, arbitrary choices.

Are all artistic choices arbitrary?

No, many artists make nonarbitrary choices rooted in technique, symbolism, or intent.

Can a decision appear arbitrary but not be?

Yes, if underlying reasons aren't apparent or communicated, it might seem arbitrary.

Can an arbitrary decision become nonarbitrary over time?

Yes, if consistent rationale or systems are later applied to it.

Are nonarbitrary decisions always logical?

They're based on a system or reason, but that doesn't mean they're always "logical" in a universal sense.

Can something be semi-arbitrary?

Yes, it might have some basis in reason but also elements of whim or randomness.

Why is nonarbitrary important in legal contexts?

It ensures fairness, consistency, and reduces potential biases.

Is predictability always linked to nonarbitrary actions?

Generally, yes, as they follow set standards or reasons.

Why might companies avoid arbitrary decisions?

For clarity, fairness, and to maintain trust among stakeholders.

Are there fields where arbitrary actions dominate?

Yes, in areas emphasizing creativity or spontaneity, arbitrary actions might be more common.

Do humans naturally lean towards arbitrary or nonarbitrary decisions?

It varies. While humans often seek patterns (nonarbitrary), they can also act on impulse (arbitrary).

How can I ensure my decisions are nonarbitrary?

Establish clear criteria, be consistent, and communicate reasons.

Is "arbitrary" always a negative term?

No, it's neutral. Context determines if it's negative or positive.

Do all cultures value nonarbitrary and arbitrary decisions similarly?

No, cultural contexts can influence how these types of decisions are perceived and valued.

Why might someone make an arbitrary decision?

Reasons vary: spontaneity, lack of information, or personal whim.

Can a language be entirely nonarbitrary?

Most languages have arbitrary elements, though some word forms (like onomatopoeia) might be less arbitrary.

Is intuition arbitrary or nonarbitrary?

It can be seen as both. While intuitive choices might feel arbitrary, they often have a basis in subconscious reasoning.

Can something start as arbitrary and be given nonarbitrary value later?

Yes, values or reasons can be assigned post-decision or post-creation.

Are arbitrary choices more authentic?

Not necessarily. Authenticity relates to sincerity, not the method of decision-making.

How does understanding these terms help in decision-making?

Recognizing if decisions are arbitrary or nonarbitrary can aid in predictability and understanding outcomes.
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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