Restive and Restless

Commonly Confused Words

Theodore M. Bernstein, Dos, Don'ts & Maybes of English Usage (Gramercy, 1999).

There's only a shade of difference between the words restive and restless, but it's a shade worth paying attention to.

The adjective restive means difficult to control or impatient in the face of restraint or authority.

The adjective restless means unable to rest, relax, or remain still. Unlike restive, restless is not associated with external restraint.

Also see the usage notes below.

Examples:

  • "The only real answer to a restive animal is good schooling. Nothing upsets horses or ponies (or riders) more than a restive animal that will not stand quietly."
    (George Wheatley, The Young Rider's Companion, 1981)
  • "If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass."
    (Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life, 1978)

Usage Notes:

  • "[T]he words [restive and restless] overlap considerably. The 'subtle distinction,' says The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage (2005), is between restive, 'impatient with restriction,' and restless, 'fidgety.' But restive is often merely a synonym for restless. 'Some critics lament this development,' says Garner 2003, 'but it seems irreversible.'"
    (Jan Freeman, Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. Walker, 2009)
  • "Restless is used for a person or thing that has or gives little rest: 'She spent a restless night worrying about the bills,' 'Never more, Sailor / Shalt thou be / Tossed on the wind-ridden / Restless sea' (Walter de la Mare). Restive is used for a person or thing that is uneasy, or impatient of authority: 'Horses can be restive creatures, anxious to be moving when they should be standing still.'"
    (Adrian Room, Dictionary of Confusable Words. Routledge, 2000)
  • "[A] patient who is sleeping poorly may be restless, but the same patient is restive only if kept in bed against his or her will."
    (Webster's New Essential Writer's Companion. Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Practice:

(a) "My _____, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long."
("Buffalo Bill" Cody)

(b) "Pete was a _____ prisoner, and on February 27, 1945, he and a fellow convict escaped from Retrieve Prison Farm and made their way to Detroit before being recaptured by the FBI."
(Douglas V.

Meed, Texas Ranger Johnny Klevenhagen. Republic of Texas Press, 2000)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

Answers to Practice Exercises: Restive and Restless

(a) "My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long."
("Buffalo Bill" Cody)

(b) "Pete was a restive prisoner, and on February 27, 1945, he and a fellow convict escaped from Retrieve Prison Farm and made their way to Detroit before being recaptured by the FBI."
(Douglas V. Meed, Texas Ranger Johnny Klevenhagen. Republic of Texas Press, 2000)

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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Nordquist, Richard. "Restive and Restless." ThoughtCo, Jul. 13, 2015, thoughtco.com/restive-and-restless-1689482. Nordquist, Richard. (2015, July 13). Restive and Restless. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/restive-and-restless-1689482 Nordquist, Richard. "Restive and Restless." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/restive-and-restless-1689482 (accessed January 19, 2018).