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.
Before examining the difference between patience and patients, consider these two examples:
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.
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.
*to lose one’s patience is a phrasal verb, meaning to become angry.
Examples with patient as an adjective:
Examples with patiently as an adverb:
Note: Patience is also another name for the card game solitaire.
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 of patient as a singular noun
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.
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.
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.