Centrifugal vs. Centripetal – What’s the Difference?

The language of science is filled with words that are mysterious to everyday English users. Yet, scientific literature relies on concision and careful word choice as much, if not more, than other kinds of writing.

If you are writing about scientific topics, you will need to be able to keep track of the meanings of many confusing words. Some of these words are superficially quite similar, like centrifugal force and centripetal force.

Despite their appearance, these words actually mean opposite things. To write one when you meant the other could be a serious and embarrassing mistake.

What is the Difference Between Centrifugal vs Centripetal?

In this post, I will compare centrifugal vs. centripetal. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence.

Plus, I will explain a memory tool that you can use to help you choose centrifugal or centripetal when you need one of these words.

When to Use Centrifugal

centrifugal versus centripetal forceWhat does centrifugal mean? Centrifugal is an adjective that describes a force that repels objects away from a center.

Here are some examples,

  • The centrifugal force of the merry-go-round’s rotation caused the children to be thrown to the side when they let go.
  • The centrifugal force of an eggbeater is what makes your kitchen a mess if you aren’t careful while you use it.
  • I also trusted the phenomenon of centrifugal force, which kept me pressed to my nearly vertical seat. –The Wall Street Journal

Centrifugal is sometimes used figuratively, to describe something or someone that causes others to avoid it. See the example below.

  • Walter died alone due to the centrifugal force of his self-destructive patterns of behavior.

When to Use Centripetal

Definition of centripetal definition of centrifugal definitionWhat does centripetal mean? Centripetal, on the other hand, is an adjective that describes a force that attracts objects toward a center.

I have listed a few examples here,

  • Gravity’s inexorable centripetal force is the mechanism behind the rising and falling of tides.
  • The centripetal force of magnetism was poorly understood until the 13th century.

Like centrifugal, centripetal can be used figuratively, like in the example below.

  • Brian’s house was centripetal for parties, since it was large and in the middle of the city.
  • Today, however, Congress is centrifugal rather than centripetal, expelling rather than concentrating power. –The Washington Post

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define centripetal and define centrifugalHere is a helpful trick to remember centripetal vs. centrifugal.

  • A centrifugal force pushes objects away from the center.
  • A centripetal force pulls objects toward a center.

The word centrifugal is spelled with an F. Remember that centrifugal forces push objects far away. Centripetal forces, spelled with a P, pull objects closer.

In everyday English, centrifugal is more familiar than centripetal. As Bryan Garner notes in Garner’s Modern English Usage, most nonscientific writers could benefit from “substituting central for the high-falutin centripetal” (p. 154) to avoid confusing their readers.

Summary: Centrifugal Force vs. Centripetal Force

Is it centrifugal or centrifugal? Centrifugal and centripetal are both adjectives that refer to types of forces.

  • A centripetal force pulls objects toward a center.
  • A centrifugal force pushes objects far away from the center.

Remember, centrifugal forces, spelled with an F, push objects far away. You can use the word’s spelling to remember its meaning.

For a more detailed explanation of different types of forces, consult a physics textbook. Any time you have questions about style or word choice, however, you can check Writing Explained for helpful tips.