X v Y: Intention or intent?

The second of Glossophilia’s series “X v Y” examines intention v intent.

People tend to use “intention” and “intent” interchangeably. But the words, although largely synonymous, do have different nuances, if not actual meanings.

First, at the heart of the difference in meaning is that “intention” is a countable noun, and “intent” is uncountable. Whereas I’m capable of having a number of specific intentions, or he might have a series of intentions in mind to achieve his goal, “intent” is a more abstract and intangible concept – like happiness or vulnerability. It’s something you can’t really quantify.

“Intent” is a mindset, rather than something on a to-do list. “My intention was to pick up some fruit at the store, but I ended up buying a steak.” “Her intention, sooner rather than later, was to marry.” But “his intent to harm was evident in the severity of her wounds”. An intention, although more specific and more descriptive of an anticipated behavior or action, is weaker in terms of its owner’s determination to follow it through. Intent is what’s in your mind – a sense of deliberateness – when you commit a deed, or when you carry out your intention.

When I play a game of scrabble, my intentions are various: to kick back, relax, have some fun, and to win. When Roger Federer plays the final at Wimbledon, his intent to win is palpable.

“Intent” is most often found in legal or formal contexts, when the question of deliberateness is at issue.

First posted Sep 2012

6 thoughts on “X v Y: Intention or intent?

  1. Martha Adelaja

    How does the noun ‘intentionality’ fit in this equation? And why do I always get the red squiggly line under the word, although it is spelled correctly. After reading this article, I believe that intentionality is a non-quantifiable noun.

    1. Melissa

      I think intentionality may get that flag because it’s not just used to generally suggest “wont to intent” (however infrequently) as it is a particular philosophical term.

  2. Kevin

    Which of the two fragments below is correct?

    1) …no matter her well-meaning intent.

    2) …no matter her well-meaning intention.

    Thank you,


  3. Louise Post author

    I think you’d probably need more context to determine which of these is more correct or appropriate. It depends on whether you’re referring to her frame of mind when she did or said something or to her actual decision or plan to do or say something.

    I’m also not sure about the use of “no matter” in either of these clauses: it’s usually followed by “whether”, “what”, “when” etc. – and a verbal clause, e.g. “no matter what her well-meaning intention was”, so perhaps it would be better phrased as “no matter whether her intention was well-meant or not”. Or perhaps it means “despite her good intentions”. In this case, I think “intent” wouldn’t be appropriate.

  4. Adam

    I think it’s more than nuance, it’s a matter of how the suffix -tion works in English. -tion almost always implies “the act or state of ____” In this context “intent” would be a held mindset or purpose, where “intention” would be the act of having that mindset or purpose.


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