Relation vs Relationship: Do You Know the Difference? - Clark and Miller (2023)

Today you’re going to find out the difference between relation and relationship. Also check out Family Vocabulary: Family Members in English.

Quick! Answer these questions:

  1. Do we say “I’m in a relation,” or “I’m in a relationship”?
  2. Are you visiting relatives or relationships next week?
  3. Is there a relationship between the sun and Earth? Or is there a relation between the sun and Earth?

The words relation and relationship can be a bit confusing.

But they don’t have to be. Read on to find out the differences.

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Meaning of relation

We use relation to talk about family members

Relation can mean “member of your family”

Relation and relative sometimes have the same meaning.

So you can say, “I can’t go paintballing with you this weekend — I’ve got to go and visit my relatives.”

Or you can say, “I can’t go paintballing with you this weekend — I’ve got to go and visit my relations.”

The difference?

There isn’t any difference. Some people prefer to use relative, and some people prefer relation.

★ The phrase “no relation” can help with confusing situations

We also have the phrase “no relation.”

We use it to stop people getting confused when two people who are not related have the same surname.

You can simply add the phrase “no relation” after the name that might be confusing.

“James Thompson was in court today accusing Cindy Thompson, no relation, of stealing his rabbit.”

“When I was in Washington, I met a politician called Angello Trump, no relation.”

You can also use the question “Any relation?” to ask whether someone is related to someone else with the same name.

For example, let’s say that you want to join the David Attenborough Fan Club.

And why not? I mean, David Attenborough is kind of fantastic:

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So you go to the David Attenborough Fan Club office and meet the fan club chairwoman.

She tells you her name, and you’re a bit surprised.

Her name is Charlene Attenborough.

So is she one of David’s relatives?

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The word relations can describe how well people get on

★ We use relations for bigger groups of people

We can use the word relations to describe how good things are between groups of people.

We usually use it for large groups of people, like countries, companies and their shareholders, or extended families.

So we can talk about how a company needs to improve relations with its shareholders.

Or how relations between India and Scotland are excellent at the moment.

Notice that we say “relations with …” or “relations between … and …”

It’s also worth noting that this word is quite formal. You’ll see it in the paper and hear it on the news a lot.

★ Common collocations with relations

Describing how well groups of people get on with each other can be a sensitive subject sometimes.

So for these cases, there are a lot of collocations with the word relations:

We use the phrase “race relations” to describe how good or bad things are between different races in a country.

If two countries get annoyed with each other and decide not to talk to each other anymore (as if they were four-year-old children), then we can say that they have cut off (or severed)diplomatic relations.

Business relations” between countries refers to how well the countries do business together.

And if you’re a big, bad, evil corporation that does big, bad, evil things, you’re going to need a good PR team.

And what does PR stand for?

Public relations, of course!

They’re the people who try to make sure everyone sees the corporation as the good guys. Even when they kill puppies. With oil.

Use “in relation to” to compare or connect two things

★ Use “in relation to” to compare two things

Let’s say you have a fantastic job working in PR. You’re earning big bucks.

But you’re not satisfied.

You want to do something more interesting and more fulfilling.

So you quit your job and follow your lifelong dream of training dogs for Hollywood.

A much more enjoyable job, right?

But when you compare the salary to your old job, it’s much lower.

So you can say your new job pays much less in relation to your old one.

It’s the same as “compared to.”

“The population of the city is very big in relation to its size.”

“Cats have very small brains in relation to how much they can actually remember. My cat has never forgiven me about the time I ate her catnip.”

★ Use “in relation to” to connect two ideas

“In relation to” can also connect two ideas or topics.

It’s another, more formal way of saying about.

Let’s take an example.

Here’s Nancy. Nancy’s a popular DJ.

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But yesterday she was being interviewed on live TV and told everyone that she believed that the world was flat and that it was created by singing elephants.

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Now everyone wants to know if that’s really what Nancy believes.

So of course her PR team needs to step in to stop her looking any more ridiculous.

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This phrase is definitely quite formal and can be especially useful in academic situations:

“There have been no convincing theories in relation to successful time travel.”

“These plants need a lot of extra attention in the winter, especially in relation to water levels.”

Meaning of relationship

The word relationship is used in a similar way to the word relation.

But there are some important differences.

Use relationship to describe the situation with your partner

★ “In a relationship” can describe your status

Do you remember when Facebook started, and it was only available in English?

A lot of my students picked up some interesting vocabulary in those days — words like poke and wave.

Some of them also learned the phrase “relationship status” as well as the various possible options for “relationship status.”

There were, of course, the classics: single, married, engaged.

There was the interesting one: it’s complicated.

And there was “in a relationship.”

Or even “in a relationship with Barry McBarry” (or whoever you were in a relationship with).

When you say you’re in a relationship, you might be married; you might just be partners. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the love that grows between you day by day, right?

★ You can also talk about a relationship as an abstract concept

When two people get together and become partners, sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t go that well.

When we want to talk about it more subjectively, we can talk about the relationship as a concept.

“Their relationship kept getting worse and worse.”

This reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

If a relationship is going badly, it might be time to get off Facebook and work on the relationship.

The word relationship can describe how well people get on

“Hang on a minute! You said the same thing about the word relations!” I can hear you say.

And you’re right.

But there are some differences.

★ We use relationship for smaller groups of people

As we saw above, relations can describe how things are between countries, cities, large families, companies, etc.

But when we want to make things more personal — more human — we use the word relationship instead.

Interestingly, we often use relationship with words like good or bad.

“We make sure that we maintain a fantastic relationship with our clients.”

“The relationship between the brothers is terrible at the moment.”

★ Common phrases with relationship

When a business relationship starts well, you can say that you’ve established a good relationship.

Then, to make sure things just keep getting better, you can build up the relationship or strengthen the relationship.

Sometimes doing this can take time.

Perhaps you’ve been working on building a relationship with one of your colleagues for a while, but it hasn’t quite happened.

Then one weekend you have to go on a business trip together. You both do a great job at securing a contract, and you enjoy a nice dinner afterwards, where you talk about future trips and working together more.

That weekend where it all came together? That was when you cemented your relationship.

Since then, you’ve worked with that colleague very well — you’ve got a good working relationship.

When you have different roles in the relationship (like a doctor and a patient, or a parent and a child), it’s common to say the roles before the word relationship.

So, you can talk about a doctor-patient relationship, a parent-child relationship, or a student-teacher relationship.

You can use relationship to talk about how things and people are connected

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina, then Barry forgets to brush his teeth in Dundee.

We all know everyone else in the world through just seven degrees of separation. That means that I know you through (at the most distant) my friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s friend.

And let’s not forget: we’re ALL related!

Everything is connected!

But of course, some things are more closely connected than others.

We can use the phrase “relationship between” to describe (or ask about) how (or how closely) two things are connected.

“There’s a very strong relationship between a plant-based diet and a longer life.”

The relationship between punk music and politics is unbreakable!

That’s it — now you should be able to use relation and relationship like a ninja!

But before we finish, can you answer these questions?

  1. Which country enjoys particularly good diplomatic relations with your country?
  2. How do you try to establish a good relationship with people at work?
  3. What’s the relationship between a pencil and a cassette tape?

Answer in the comments!

Also, if you want to help me out and spread the knowledge, please take two seconds to click on that SHARE button!

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