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Propel vs. Impel: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Updated on November 13, 2023
Propel refers to drive or push something forward. Impel refers to urge or drive someone to action, often by moral pressure.

Key Differences

"Propel" refers to the act of pushing or driving something forward, often physically, as in propelling a boat with oars. "Impel," however, often involves a psychological or moral force, driving a person to act.
"Propel" is commonly used in contexts involving physical movement or momentum, like a propeller moving a ship. "Impel" is more about internal motivation or external pressure compelling someone to do something.
In mechanics, "propel" describes the action of causing movement in machines or objects. In contrast, "impel" is used in situations where a person is driven to act by feelings, beliefs, or moral obligations.
"Propel" often implies a direct, forceful action leading to movement. "Impel" suggests an influence or urge that pushes someone to take a certain action.
"Propel" can be used in a broad range of physical contexts, from simple hand-driven motion to complex machinery. "Impel" is more nuanced, often associated with psychological, ethical, or emotional motivations.

Comparison Chart

Aspect of Comparison


Primary Use

Physical movement or momentum.
Psychological or moral motivation to act.


Often mechanical or physical.
Emotional, ethical, or motivational.


Direct force leading to movement.
Influence or urge leading to action.


Broad in physical contexts.
Specific to internal or external motivations.


Propelling a boat, a rocket.
Impelled by guilt, duty, or passion.

Propel and Impel Definitions


To push or cause something to move in a particular direction.
He used a paddle to propel the canoe.


To incite or propel someone psychologically.
The need to create impelled him to write daily.


To drive forward or cause to move.
The wind helped propel the sailboat across the lake.


To drive or urge someone to do something.
A sense of duty impelled him to volunteer.


To motivate or drive someone to a particular action.
Her ambition propelled her to the top of her class.


To motivate or influence someone to act.
Her passion for justice impelled her to become a lawyer.


To cause to progress or advance.
Innovative ideas propelled the company's success.


To compel or force someone into action.
Financial necessity impelled her to find a second job.


To impart force to something causing movement.
The engine propels the car forward.


To push or drive forward, especially by internal motivation.
Curiosity impelled him to explore new places.


To cause to move forward or onward.


To urge to action through moral pressure; drive
I was impelled by events to take a stand.


To cause to develop or progress
A misunderstanding that propels the story forward.


To drive forward; propel.


(transitive) To provide an impetus for motion or physical action, to cause to move in a certain direction; to drive forward.


(transitive) To urge a person; to press on; to incite to action or motion via intrinsic motivation.


To provide an impetus for non-physical change, to make to arrive to a certain situation or result.


(transitive) To drive forward; to propel an object, to provide an impetus for motion or action.


To drive forward; to urge or press onward by force; to move, or cause to move; as, the wind or steam propels ships; balls are propelled by gunpowder.


To drive or urge forward or on; to press on; to incite to action or motion in any way.
The surge impelled me on a craggy coast.


Cause to move forward with force;
Steam propels this ship


Urge or force (a person) to an action; constrain or motivate


Give an incentive for action;
This moved me to sacrifice my career


Cause to move forward with force;
Steam propels this ship


Is "propel" used in mechanical contexts?

Yes, it's commonly used to describe mechanical movement.

Can "propel" be used metaphorically?

Yes, it can metaphorically mean advancing or progressing.

Does "impel" imply a moral obligation?

Often, it can imply moral or ethical reasons for action.

Is "impel" always about serious motivations?

Not always; it can be any strong motivation, serious or not.

Does "propel" suggest a positive movement?

Not necessarily; it's neutral regarding the outcome.

Is "propel" always physical?

Mostly, but it can also imply advancing in non-physical contexts.

What does "propelled by the wind" mean?

It means being moved forward by the force of the wind.

Does "impel" always involve others?

No, one can be impelled by their own thoughts or feelings.

Can "impel" relate to external factors?

Yes, external pressures like duty or necessity can impel action.

Is "impel" a common everyday term?

It's less common and more formal than "propel."

Is "propel" a technical term?

It's used technically but also in general language.

Can "propel" refer to career advancement?

Yes, it can refer to driving someone forward in their career.

How does "impel" differ from compel?

"Impel" is more about internal motivation, "compel" is more forceful.

Can "impel" be used in a physical sense?

Rarely; it's primarily psychological or motivational.

Can "impel" be involuntary?

Yes, one can be impelled by factors beyond their control.

Can "propel" have a negative connotation?

In certain contexts, it can imply forceful or aggressive action.

Can "impel" indicate a sudden action?

It usually suggests a build-up rather than suddenness.

Is "propel" related to speed?

It can imply speed but primarily focuses on direction of movement.

Does "propel" imply continuous movement?

It can, especially in the context of propulsion systems.

Is "impel" used in legal language?

Yes, often in the context of what drives a person to act.
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
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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