Patience vs. Patients: How to Choose the Right Word

These terms sound the same, but they have very different meanings

Doctor checking senior mans back in examination room
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The words "patience" and "patients" are homophones: they sound the same but have very different meanings. The noun "patience" refers to the ability to wait or endure hardship for a long time without becoming upset. The noun "patients" is the plural form of patient—someone who receives medical care. There are a few tricks to learning which term to use and when.

How to Use "Patience"

"Patience" means possessing or having the capacity to be "patient." Someone who is "patient" is not in a hurry and can wait calmly and in a relaxed manner for what comes next. Put another way, "patience" means not being hasty or impetuous. A sentence using the word might read: He had the "patience" to wait for three hours while his son was at football practice.

How to Use "Patients"

Use "patients" whenever you are talking about those who have been admitted to a hospital, are undergoing medical care, or are even awaiting treatment in a doctor's office waiting room. Additionally, individuals who are under a doctor's care, or even those who visit a hospital emergency room or doctor's office for treatment, are considered to be "patients." A sentence using this term might read: Because of the way health care is today, most doctors in private practice have to see many "patients" each day.

Examples

Using the terms in context in everyday language can give you a clearer picture of when to use "patience" or "patients." As this anonymous quote makes clear:

  • One thing a mother must always save for a rainy day is "patience."

Thinking of mothers as people who are willing to calmly endure many hardships, reminds you that, as a group, they show a lot of "patience." By contrast, individuals dealing with the health system are often "patients," as in:

  • Growing numbers of "patients" are now sharing their medical data online.

You might even combine the two terms in one sentence:

  • Considering the state of today's health system, "patients" (those under medical care) have to show a lot of "patience" (the ability to wait calmly).

How to Remember the Difference

An easy mnemonic device you can use to help you remember when to use "patience" is embedded in its definition: To have "patience," you have to be able to wait calmly. Both "patience" and calmly contain the letter "c." By contrast, if you visit a doctor for treatment, you are a patient. Both a "doctor" and her "patients" contain at least one "t."

The Adjective Form of "Patience"

What makes "patience" tricky is that its adjective form is "patient." Since this is the same spelling as the word for a person receiving medical care, the only way to distinguish between the two is by looking at the context of the sentence. For example, suppose you say:

  • The doctor had many "patients."

It's clear that in this case "patients" refers to those receiving medical care or are being seen by a doctor. By contrast, if you say:

  • The customers were very "patient" as they waited their turn in line.

It's clear that the sentence is referring to customers who had the attribute of being "patient." You can use both terms logically in a sentence:

  • The "patients" were very "patient" as they waited for the doctor.

In this case, the "patients" (individuals seeking medical care) were "patient" (showed a calm willingness to wait) to see the doctor. You can correctly use the noun form of each word and say, essentially, the same thing:

  • The "patients" showed great "patience" as they waited to be seen by the doctor

Practice

To see if you understand the difference between "patience" and "patients," take this brief quiz.

  1. The crisis in emergency care is taking its toll on doctors, nurses, and _____.
  2. "Now look, Peggy. I'm running out of money and I'm running out of _____. Either you are going to marry me or not, and I want to know right now." (Barry Goldwater, quoted by John W. Dean in "Pure Goldwater.")

Answers

  1. The crisis in emergency care is taking its toll on doctors, nurses, and patients.
  2. "Now look, Peggy. I'm running out of money and I'm running out of patience. Either you are going to marry me or not, and I want to know right now."

Sources