Relative / relation - relationship

Denis Baizeau from France writes:

I do not feel comfortable when I have to use the words relation and relationship. Could you please help me to clarify the main usages and differences of these two closely related words. Many thanks in advance.

Roger Woodham replies:

A relationship is a close friendship between two people, especially one involving romantic feelings:

  • They had been together for two years and Mike wanted to carry on, but Jenny felt that their relationship wasn't really going anywhere.

Relationship can be used in two other ways. It can describe two things and the way in which they are connected:

  • Doctors now believe that there may be some relationship / connection between autism and the MMR vaccine.

It can also describe close ties between people or groups of people and the way they feel and behave towards each other:

  • The Smiths placed great emphasis on close family relationships and always went on holiday together.

  • The relationship between the leaders of the two countries has never been closer.



Relation also describes the link between people, groups or countries and the way they behave towards each other. In this sense there is very little difference between relations and relationship. For instance, we could also say:

  • Relations between (the leaders of) the two countries have never been closer.

Most of the differences are context specific in this sense. For example, we talk about diplomatic relations and race relations, not diplomatic relationships or race relationships:

  • Diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken off over this incident and their ambassadors were sent home.

  • The need to improve race relations in Inner London boroughs is of paramount importance.

Your relations are also members of your family:

  • I invited all my friends and relations to my twenty-first birthday party.

  • Mark Totterdale and Simon Totterdale (no relation) are both head teachers in Bristol.

Your blood relations are the people who are related to you by birth, not through marriage. If you say that they are your own flesh and blood, you are emphasizing that they are members of your own family:

  • He's my own flesh and blood. I can't leave him to fend for himself when he needs my help.

Relatives (noun) - relative (adj)

Note that we also use the term relative to describe members of your family:

  • She couldn't get any of her relatives / relations to look after the children, so had to employ a childminder.

  • The chimpanzee is native to equatorial Africa and is believed to be the closest living relative to man.

The adjective relative and the adverb relatively are used when you are comparing the quality or size of something in relation to something else:

  • Both cactuses were relatively small and I wanted one that was larger to fit into the pot.

  • Fitness is a relative concept. You must always ask the question: fit to do what?

  • They were discussing the relative / comparative merits of Liverpool and Leeds as places to live when I entered the room.

  • He was able to smuggle the animals out of the country with relative / comparative ease.

Related (adj)

When two or more things are related, there is some kind of connection between them. When people are related, they are members of the same family:

  • He was arrested for theft-related offences.

  • In the social sciences anthropology and ethnography are closely related disciplines.

  • I had all the equipment needed for gymnastics and related activities.

  • Aren't you two related? ~ No, we're not. ~ Oh, I thought Henry was your cousin.

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