Some English usage can look mystifying to outside observers. Often, though, even things which don’t seem to make sense on a superficial level actually do make sense after all.
Invaluable and valuable, for example, seem to be opposites, but most English speakers and writers use them more like synonyms. This shouldn’t be possible, but as we will see, once you dig deeper into the literal meaning of these words, the reasons for this usage become much more clear.
What is the Difference Between Invaluable and Valuable?
In this post, I will compare valuable vs. invaluable. I will use each word in at least one example sentence, so you can see it in its context.
Plus, I will show you a helpful memory tool that you can use as a reminder of whether valuable or invaluable is a better word to choose.
When to Use Valuable
What does valuable mean? Valuable is an adjective. Its most literal meaning is able to be valued or appraised, but, in common usage, it is more likely to mean costly or precious.
Valuables can be a plural noun that mean expensive belongings, but valuable is not a singular noun.
The sentences below are examples of valuable as an adjective,
- The collector’s hoard contained thousands of baseball cards, along with other valuable pieces of memorabilia.
- “Andrea is a valuable contributor to our team,” wrote Marcus in his peer evaluation.
- The stock sale sets Snap up as the most valuable American technology company to go public since Facebook nearly five years ago. –The New York Times
Valuable is related to the word value, which means what something is worth as a noun and to appraise something as a verb. Its adverb form is valuably.
When to Use Invaluable
What does invaluable mean? Invaluable is also an adjective. Its purest meaning might be unable to be valued or appraised. In real life, though, it usually means very important or highly esteemed.
- For the price of a three-bedroom home with a pool in a leafy suburb, you can now buy something really and truly invaluable. Your own stadium seat. –The Wall Street Journal
Invaluable confuses some writers who think it should mean the opposite of valuable. If valuable means costly or precious, it seems intuitive that invaluable would be its opposite, namely, not costly or precious. The prefix in- is often used as a negation, like in the words inattentive and indefensible.
Invaluable requires some mental gymnastics. Something that is very important might be so important that a value cannot be placed on it, making it unable to be valued, or invaluable. In a way, you can think of invaluable as a comparative form of valuable, like more valuable or instead of the nonexistent valuabler.
Trick to Remember the Difference
When comparing invaluable vs. valuable, some writers get confused. These words seem like they should be opposites, but the negation of valuable is actually used as an intensified version of the word in real life. You can see why this would throw people off, especially language learners.
It might be easier to think of invaluable as a rough synonym for innumerable, which means too great to be counted. Since both of these words begin with the prefix in-, remembering that invaluable describes something to important to be valued is much easier.
Another good mental check you can use is to look at the term you are describing. Valuable is more commonly used with objects or belongings–tangible things. Invaluable is more commonly used with skills or character qualities–intangible things.
Is it invaluable or valuable? These words are close in their spellings and close in the meanings, but there are important nuances that you should learn as a writer.
- Valuable is an adjective that means expensive or precious.
- Invaluable looks like its opposite, but actually means too important to be assigned a value.