'Intelligent' vs 'Smart': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on September 1, 2023

‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’: What’s the difference? Learning synonyms is a great way to expand your vocabulary, but we have to be careful to remember that words also have their own meanings as well. Let’s learn how to distinguish ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’.

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

  • ‘Intelligent’ is a word that means to be mentally keen 
  • ‘Smart’ is a word that means showing quick-wittedness

What’s the Difference Between ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’?

We often use synonyms as interchangeable counterparts that add variety to our writing. While this can be great for descriptiveness, we can sometimes use words inaccurately, or at least not to their full intended effect. 

So how do we avoid this with ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’? We have to look very closely at the details of each word’s meaning.

  • Being ‘Smart’ has to do with being knowledgeable, typically in a particular subject matter.
  • Meanwhile, being ‘intelligent’ has more to do with situational awareness.

For example, a smart person may be great at taking tests and memorizing information, but an intelligent person may pick up on the nuances of the information, or find a more effective way to memorize. 

From this point of view, we can see how the words overlap and differ.

If you want to visualize it further, consider the rule of rectangles: 

  • All rectangles are squares, but not all squares are rectangles. All intelligent people are smart, but not all smart people have intelligence. 

Given that the words are synonyms, this is harder to pinpoint, especially since ‘Smart’ and ‘Intelligent’ are both somewhat subjective terms. But, hopefully, thinking of the rectangle rule will help you begin to conceptualize these new words. 

Now that we have a more general idea of how the words relate let’s take a closer look individually at the meanings of ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’.

Definition of ‘Intelligent’: What Does it Mean?

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

  • Having or showing intelligence, especially of a high level
    • “She is intelligent and hardworking.”
  • Revealing or reflecting good judgment or sound thought 
    • “They relied on his intelligence.”
  • (of a device, machine, or building) able to vary its state or action in response to various situations, varying requirements, and past experience
  • (of a computer terminal) incorporating a microprocessor and having its own processing capability 
  • Showing success in coping with new situations and solving problems; able to learn and understand things easily.
    • “An intelligent person could complete this quickly.”

Synonyms of ‘Intelligent’

  • Astute
  • Brainy
  • Knowledgeable 
  • Perceptive
  • Clever
  • Imaginative
  • Profound 
  • Inventive 
  • Calculating
  • Resourceful 
  • Keen

Antonyms of ‘Intelligent’

  • Dull
  • Ignorant
  • Dark
  • Idiotic 
  • Stupid 
  • Unintelligent
  • Unaware
  • Foolish

Phrases with ‘Intelligent’

  • Hyper-intelligent
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Intelligent life
  • Intelligent design
  • Assessment of Intelligence

Definition of ‘Smart’: What Does it Mean?

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

  • Having or showing quick-witted intelligence
    • “If he were that smart, he would’ve never been tricked.”
  • Having or showing a high degree of mental ability
    • “She was the smartest in class.”
  • Showing impertinence by making clever or sarcastic remarks
    • “Don’t get smart with me.”
  • (of a device) programmed to be capable of some independent action
    • “Hi-tech smart weapons.”
  • (of a person) clean, neat, and well dressed
    • “You look very smart.”
  • Attractively neat and stylish; fashionable and upscale
  • Quick; brisk
    • “He gave him a smart salute.”

As a verb, ‘Smart’ can also mean:

  • (of a wound or part of the body) feel or cause sharp, stinging pain
    • “Her legs were scratched and smarting.”
  • Feel upset and annoyed
    • “Chiefs of staff are still smarting from the government’s cuts.”

Finally, as a noun, ‘Smart’ is also defined as:

  • Intelligence; acumen
    • “I don’t have the smarts for that.”
  • Sharp stinging pain
    • “The smart of the recent wounds.”

Note! The word ‘Smart’ came from West Germanic origin and was originally only defined as ‘causing sharp pain.’ This evolved into the terms “keen” and “brisk, " leading to the more modern meaning of being " mentally sharp." After seeing the historical definition, it’s interesting to see how it evolved to mean intelligence based on sharpness. 

Synonyms of ‘Smart’

  • Bright
  • Canny
  • Sharp
  • Shrewd
  • Wise
  • Adept
  • Slick 
  • Nimble
  • Bold 
  • Stylish
  • Chic
  • Active

Antonyms of ‘Smart’

  • Dumb
  • Ignorant
  • Naive
  • Slow
  • Stupid
  • Obtuse
  • Unskilled
  • Unclever

Phrases with ‘Smart’

  • To be smart
  • Smart-aleck
  • Dress smart
  • Book smarts
  • Street smarts

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’

Part of learning new words is feeling comfortable using them in conversation, which starts with being able to pronounce them correctly. We want you to feel and sound ‘Intelligent’ when you say the word aloud. Review the tools below to learn to say the words confidently. 

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

  • ‘In-tel-ih-jehnt’ (both “i” sounds in the word are dull and sound like “spin”) 

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

  • ‘Sma-rt’ (the vowel almost directly leads into the “r” sound, as though you’re saying the letter “r” out loud) 

How to Use ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’ in a Sentence

The final step to mastering language is feeling comfortable using it in your own scenarios. Follow the sample sentences below to get an idea of how these words function in the real world, and be careful of how these synonyms differ depending on context.

‘Intelligent’ Example Sentences

  • The family relied on their son’s intelligence when finding clues in the escape room
  • Though there have been many space explorations, we have yet to find definitive signs of other intelligent life forms. 
  • They needed all of the facts of the case before they could make an informed and intelligent decision. 
  • He’s so out of touch that it’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation with him. 

‘Smart’ Example Sentences

  • Some kids would get bullied by others who deemed them not smart enough. 
  • He wanted to put on something smart since they were going out to dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in town. 
  • She didn’t have the smarts to figure out the puzzle on her own, so she phoned a friend for help. 
  • He talked back to his parents and thought it was funny to be smart until they took away his video game console as punishment. 

‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’ Example Sentences

  • While she was very smart when it came to math, she wasn’t very emotionally intelligent and couldn’t read people’s moods. 
  • People are scared that artificially intelligent beings will eventually be smart enough to overthrow their creators. 

Final Advice on ‘Intelligent’ vs ‘Smart’

Deciphering slight differences between synonyms can be tricky, but in the end, it shows us how we can make our writing more nuanced. Remember that context clues are great for deciding which synonym is most appropriate, especially when words have more than one definition. 

Need a quick recap? Let’s review what we covered:

  • ‘Intelligent’ is an adjective that means having or showing intelligence, good judgment, and sound thought. 
  • ‘Smart’ is an adjective that means having a high degree of mental ability, and can also mean impertinence or attitude, as well as fashionability. 

Want to learn more about synonyms? Be sure to check out other confusing word articles where we tackle other synonym pairs and how we can focus on the small differences to make a big impact in our writing.

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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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