Could you distinguish clearly the difference in meaning btw useful (adj) and helpful (adj)?

When are they interchangeable? When are they different?

I think they are largely interchangeable. I'm trying to come up with sentences in which one works, but not the other, and not doing very well.

I think "useful" is a little more broad, but I can't explain why. Useful is listed as a synonym for helpful, but not the other way around, on www.m-w.com
In very broad and general terms, things are useful, and people are helpful.
Useful things are things that can be used. We look at them in terms of their utility, in terms of what good they can do for us. Helpful people are people who are willing to help us. We feel grateful for their help.

This gadget is very useful for applying glue.
Marla is very helpful in the kitchen.

Still speaking in broad and general terms, they are "never" interchangeable, and they are "always" different.

You can substitute helpful for useful, but it personifies the useful thing very slightly, in my opinion. In the following sentence one gets the subtle impression that the speaker really likes the gadget, that he almost has a fondness for it.

This gadget is very helpful for applying glue.

You can substitute useful for helpful less successfully, because it somewhat reifies the person, in my opinion. In the following sentence one gets the not-so-subtle impression that the speaker is looking down on Marla. He is thinking of her only in terms of what work he can get her to do for him.

Marla is very useful in the kitchen.

There is a slightly rude saying that illustrates this point. When someone is resting while everyone else is working, one of the workers may say to the idle person: Make yourself useful!

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I think a difference is often that helpful suggests giving whereas useful suggests taking.

I could say either of the following sentences, but I think there is a subtle difference between them:

She is very helpful. --> suggests that she gives me help.
She is very useful. --> suggests that I take advantage of and benefit from her know-how, skill, etc.

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CJ, you were far more specific about what I had a vague feeling about - that helpful was more "personal."

But then I thought of all the "gadgets" that are helpful to me. According to your definition, then, they are actually useful to me. Yet I'm pretty sure I say helpfulin reference to things frequently. Have I been imprecise in my usage? (It appears so!) Emotion: embarrassed

What about actions? As in "Sure, if you did that, it would be helpful." In that case, another person is the one doing the action, but the action, not the person, is what I see as helpful. But I'd somehow think it was rude of me to say to someone "If you did that, it woudl be useful" or "Your doing that is useful" instead of "helpful."

I know you said broadly, but in actual practice, do you think that these differences are observed very closely?

According to what definition? I don't think I really defined either word! I just rambled about, trying to hit on the main ways we use those words. There was no intent to say that other usages are imprecise. I'm sorry if I left that impression. According to my view, your use of helpful in the context of your gadgets is that you are fond of them, in some strange and sweet way! Maybe you are engaged in the inanimate world around you more emotionally and intimately than the rest of us! Just please don't start calling your refrigerator Ethel and your oven Georgina!

As for actions - with agents, i.e., with people as the motive force behind these actions - I think these go with helpful, not with useful, just because of the presence of a human activity. True, the action itself is what you are evaluating, but your choice between helpful and useful, according to my rambling, ad hoc theory, depends on which aspect of the action you are focused on - the fact that someone does it (help), or the fact that it gets done (use).

As for actual practice, I think the key word here is observed - i.e., "obeyed". No, there is no rule, as such, so there is nothing to be obeyed. I do think, however, that on some level, varying between the conscious and the subconscious (but perhaps more of the latter), we are all aware of the polarity - help = give; use = take - and it enters into our word choice all the time. Of course, the same thing happens in thousands of other choices we make every day. Nothing unusual there, in my opinion.

Of course, my little theory might just be a pile of you-know-what, but I don't think so. Emotion: smile

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1/Your explanation is very useful/helpful. (1)

For (1), you choose useful or helpful?Why?


Of course, my little theory might just be a pile of you-know-what, but I don't think so.

What are the meanings of a pile and you-know-what?

As in most cases, you choose useful or helpful depending on what is foremost in your mind at the time you express your thoughts in words. It is not a matter of correct or incorrect. It is a matter of differences in meaning -- in the case of this choice, very slight differences in meaning.

Your example is an example of a borderline case. The speaker may be in a mood to show appreciation for the help given in explaining something. Then he will say helpful. The speaker may be in a mood to show that he was able to use the explanation to complete some task of interest to him. Then he will say useful.

But the words are so close in meaning that it is not necessary in such borderline cases to agonize over the choice. Either one makes perfect sense. We are not talking about the difference between elephant and butterfly here! Emotion: smile

pile: heap, mound (Don't you have a dictionary?)

you-know-what: changes meaning according to context. Here, excrement. (Use your dictionary!)

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