'External' vs 'Internal': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on August 25, 2023

‘External’ vs ‘Internal’: What’s the difference? This article is going to be a helpful lesson on how prefixes can change the meanings of words. Learning how prefixes and suffixes affect roots are a great way to unlock new vocabulary, which is what you’ll learn in this article about ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’.

Are you in a rush? Here’s a quick preview of what’s to come: 

  • ‘External’ is a word that means forming the outer structure of something
  • ‘Internal’ is a word that means to be situated inside something

What’s the Difference Between ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’?

A key component of ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’ is that they are antonyms, meaning they are opposites of each other. Knowing this can help us identify the obvious difference between them, but how do we know where this difference comes from? 

As we can see, both of these words have the same root: ‘-eternal.’ Given that we know this part of the word doesn’t change in either case, we can shift our focus to the prefixes. 

  • In this case, our prefixes are ‘ex-’ vs ‘in-,’ which happen to be opposites in their original Latin as well. The prefix ‘ex-’ means “out” or “going away.”
  • Meanwhile, the prefix ‘in-’ means “on,” “go in,” and can also mean “not.”

Some examples of other words using these prefixes include:

  • ‘Extrovert’ vs ‘Introvert’
  • ‘Export’ vs ‘Import’
  • ‘Emigrate’ vs ‘Immigrate’
  • ‘Explode’ vs ‘Implode’

Knowing the meanings of the prefixes can help us understand the meaning of the words themselves. However, these words have more than one definition in themselves, so let’s take a closer look individually at ‘External’ vs ‘Internal.’

Definition of ‘External’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘External’ is an adjective that means:

  • Belonging to or forming the outer surface or structure of something
    • “The external walls.”
  • Relating to or denoting a medicine or similar substance for the use on the outside of the body
    • “For external applications only.”
  • Coming or derived from a source outside the subject affected
    • “For many people, the church was a symbol of external authority.”
  • Coming from or relating to a foreign country or an outside institution
    • “Responsibility for defense and external affairs.”
  • (of hardware) not contained in the main computer; peripheral
  • (of storage) using a disk or tape drive rather than main memory

As a noun, the word ‘External’ can also mean: 

  • The outward features of something
    • “The place has all the appropriate externals, such as a chimney.”
  • Features that are only superficial; inessential
    • “Photographs can only show externals.”

Synonyms of ‘External’

  • Outside
  • Extrinsic
  • Extraneous
  • Foreign
  • Alien
  • Exterior
  • Independent
  • Peripheral
  • Outer

Antonyms of ‘External’

  • Internal
  • National
  • Relevant
  • Native
  • Central
  • Interior
  • Middle
  • Inside

Phrases with ‘External’

  • External layer
  • External Affairs
  • To externalize

Definition of ‘Internal’: What Does it Mean? 

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Internal’ is an adjective which means:

  • Of or situated on the inside
    • “The tube had an internal diameter of one inch.”
  • Inside the body
    • “Internal hemorrhaging” 
  • Existing or occurring within an organization
    • “An internal telephone system.”
  • Relating to affairs and activities within a country rather than with other countries, domestic
    • “The government has internal policies.”
  • Experienced in one’s mind; inner rather than expressed
    • “Internal thoughts and feelings.”
  • Of the inner nature of a thing; intrinsic
    • “He creates a dialogue internal to his work.”

As a noun, the word ‘Internal’ can also mean: 

  • Inner parts or features
    • “All the weapon’s internals were finished and highly polished.”

Synonyms of ‘Internal’

  • Inside
  • Within
  • Constitutional
  • Domestic
  • In-house
  • Private
  • Innate
  • Enclosed
  • Intrinsic
  • National

Antonyms of ‘Internal’

  • External
  • Global
  • Outer
  • Outside
  • Public
  • Peripheral

Phrases with ‘Internal’

  • Internal affairs
  • Internal feelings
  • Internal organization
  • Internalized

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’

We don’t just use new words when writing; we use them in conversation and other forms of speech. Learning correct pronunciation can be the key to effective communication. Below are the tools you’ll need to learn to say our new words properly. 

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘External’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Ex-terr-nuhl’ (note that the last syllable is flat and sounds like “hull”)

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Internal’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Ihn-terr-nuhl’ (the first syllable, in this case, is also a flat ‘i’ sound like in the word “fin”)

How to Use ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’ in a Sentence

The final, and arguably most important step to mastering new words is feeling confident using them in a variety of scenarios. Below, you’ll find some sample sentences to follow and learn from. 

‘External’ Example Sentences

  • The medicinal balm is intended to be used externally on the skin only, and should not be swallowed because it is toxic. 
  • Despite already having a moat to keep out invaders, the kingdom decided to install an external wall for extra safety. 
  • He was the head of external affairs, meaning he dealt with any interactions outside the country. 
  • The company had to bring in external contract workers during a labor shortage because they needed extra help. 

‘Internal’ Example Sentences

  • He wished he had the superpower of mind reading so he could hear others’ internal monologues. 
  • She led the internal communications branch which ensured everything ran smoothly within the organization
  • He had internalized his feelings about her and wouldn’t share them because he was too scared of rejection. 
  • The internals of the car had been recently replaced, yet somehow, there was still a mechanical issue. 

‘External’ vs ‘Internal’ Example Sentences

  • Although she seemed okay externally after the car crash, the doctors discovered that she had some internal bleeding
  • While externally, he seemed to be very happy and excited, his internal thoughts showed that he was actually very upset.

Final Advice on ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’

Remember that with words like ‘External’ vs ‘Internal’, focusing on their prefixes can tell us a lot about how the words work both by themselves and in the context of a sentence. 

Need a recap? Here’s a quick review of what we learned:

  • ‘Ex-’ is a prefix that means “out,” and ‘in-’ is a prefix that means “on” or “in.”
  • ‘External’ is an adjective that means on the outside or surface of something. 
  • ‘Internal’ is an adjective that means of or situated on the inside of something.

Want to tackle more opposite pairs? Be sure to read up on other confusing words that will teach you more tricks to expand your vocabulary. Remember to be clear with your context and purposeful with your pronunciations; you’ll go far.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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