Adapt and Adopt

Commonly Confused Words

Woman and young boy outside school
If you adopt a positive attitude, you'll soon adapt to your new school.

Matt Henry Gunther/Getty Images

The words adapt and adopt may sound similar, but their meanings are different.


The verb adapt means to change something to make it suitable for a particular use or situation; to change something (such as a novel) so that it can be presented in another form (such as a movie); or (for a person) to change one's ideas or behavior so that it's easier to deal with a particular place or situation.

The verb adopt means to take something and make it one's own; to legally take a child into one's family to raise as one's own; or to formally accept something (such as a proposal) and put it into effect.

In The Dirty Thirty (2003), D. Hatcher and L. Goddard offer this mnemonic: "To adopt something is to make it your own; to adapt something is to change it." Also see the usage notes below.


  • The key to success is often the ability to adapt.
  • "My sister had been magically suited to the wild country of childhood but it remained to be seen how she would adapt herself to the uniform and yet more complex world that grown girls enter."
    (Tennessee Williams, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." Hard Candy: A Book of Stories, 1954)
  • "Before I'd become a parent, I'd been so certain, self-righteous about how I’d raise my children, how they’d eat, sleep and learn, but I’d been humbled. We had to adapt, to be flexible and creative, not only for their development, but for mine, too."
    (Vanessa Hua, "How I Found Ways to Work Out as a New Mom of Twins." The New York Times, September 23, 2016)
  • "[Neil] Gaiman is the author of several novels and short stories currently being adapted for TV and cinema. His debut novel, American Gods, is being turned into a TV series by the US channel Starz."
    (David Barnett, "Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories Brings Tales of 'Psychological Cannibalism' to TV." The Guardian [UK], February 12, 2016)
  • "Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience."
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Education," 1883)
  • "It was a common practice in Japan for a family without male heirs to adopt a son-in-law who would then inherit whatever the family owned, and its debts."
    (Harold Brookfield and Helen Parsons, Family Farms. Routledge, 2007)

Usage Notes

  • "You can adopt a child or a custom or a law; in these cases you are making the object of the adoption your own, accepting it. If you adapt something, however, you are changing it."
    (Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage. William, James & Co., 2003)
  • Prepositions With Adapt
    takes the preposition to (a use); for (a purpose); or from."
    (Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, Simon & Schuster, 1965)
  • Adopted and Adoptive
    "Children are adopted by parents, and one normally refers to an adopted child but to adoptive parents, families, and homes. When describing places, one can use either adopted or adoptive: She enjoys living in her adopted country. Detroit is their adoptive city."
    ("The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2000)


(a) We need to _____ to changing circumstances.
(b) My sister and her husband plan to _____ a child from another country.

Answers to Practice Exercises

(a) We need to adapt to changing circumstances.
(b) My sister and her husband plan to adopt a child from another country.