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Patience vs. Patients

The words patience and patients are homophones, meaning they sound almost identical. For this reason, and the fact they have similar spellings, patients and patience are commonly mixed up in speech and writing.
  • Patience is a noun, meaning the capacity of being patient, i.e. the ability of accepting and dealing with problems without becoming annoyed or anxious. Patience suggests a quality of calmness and reasonableness. For example, a parent might need to have patience when dealing with young children – or teenagers.
  • Patients is the plural of the noun, patient, i.e. a person who is sick and receiving medical treatment of some kind. For example, you would see many patients if you visited a hospital.

Patience vs. Patients - What is the Difference?

Before examining the difference between patience and patients, consider these two examples:
  • The doctor has patients.
  • The doctor has patience.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they are telling us very different things. In the first example, patients refers to the people that are being treated medically (or waiting to be treated) by the doctor. In the second example, patience tells us that there is a specific quality that this doctor possesses, i.e. the ability to deal with problems (delays, unruly behaviour, tough situations) with acceptance and calmness. In short, patients are (unwell) people, whereas patience is a quality that people can possess. While patience and patients have clearly different meanings, the words are etymologically linked, drawing on the Latin and Old French words (pacience and patientia, pacient and pacientum) for suffering and enduring (without complaint). It’s not difficult to see how the words evolved to have their modern interpretations.

When to Use Patience

Patience is, put simply, a character trait, i.e. the quality of being patient. A succinct way at looking at the definition of patience is the ability to endure suffering without complaint. It’s important to note that this level of suffering does not have to be major. The quality of patience could be found in a mother calmly soothing a crying child, a person calmly accepting that a flight has been delayed, a person simply waiting for the opportune moment to do something and a multitude of other scenarios. Patience is related to the adjective patient and the adverb patiently. Examples:
  • Children should be taught patience by being made to wait for their turn to speak.
  • Please, have some patience; the train will arrive shortly.
  • I might lose my patience* if they keep making that noise.
  • You have much more patience than I do when it comes to flight delays.
*to lose one’s patience is a phrasal verb, meaning to become angry. Examples with patient as an adjective:
  • Jenny is a patient woman; she never complains about a thing.
  • The Red Sox management was patient in the offseason, waiting until the deadline to sign new players.
Examples with patiently as an adverb:
  • The boys waited patiently in the lobby, sitting quietly as their mother checked into the hotel.
  • A leopard will wait patiently for hours in the long grass before pouncing on its prey at an opportune moment.
Note: Patience is also another name for the card game solitaire.

When to Use Patients

Patients is a noun used to identify a group of sick people who are being treated medically. As it is the plural of patient, i.e. just one person being treated medically, it can be mixed up the adjective form of patience. The good news is that you will only ever use the word patients in a medical sense. Examples:
  • The doctors treated three patients for measles last week.
  • Patients at the hospital aren’t allowed to smoke in the building.
  • The nurses left for the day, as all the patients had been treated.
  • Doctor Roberts had too many patients; he couldn’t cope seeing so many in one afternoon.
Examples of patient as a singular noun
  • I was a patient at that hospital back in 1987.
  • Many of us will never know the hardships that a cancer patient must face.

Tip to Remember the Difference

A nice way to remember the difference between patients and patience is to remember the basic idea that patients with an “S” are people (plural) and patience with a “C” is a characteristic that people have that you can see.
  • Patients are people, like clients.
  • Patiencis a characteristic that you can see.
It can still be tricky to remember but focusing on the ients in patients and clients can help you remember that patients are people, and both are plural, whereas focusing on the “C” in patience and characteristic can help you remember that patience is characteristic that people can possess and others can see. Summary Dealing with homophones like patients and patience can be tricky, even more so when we consider that two variants of the words – patient – have exactly the same spelling. On the other hand, there are clear rules of usage between the two words. Therefore, if we remember that patients are people receiving medical treatment and patience is a quality that people can possess, then we shouldn’t mix them up in writing.