Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Competence and Competency

The words ‘competence’ and ‘competency’ have an odd relationship. On the surface, they seem to mean the same thing, and you will see that the dictionary definitions are very similar. However, they are often used in different contexts.

The two words share a common etymology. They both come from the French word ‘competence’, which means a skill, talent, or capability. That in turn comes from the Latin word ‘competentia’, which meant an agreement, a conjunction, and possibly expertise. ‘Competence’ and ‘competency’ seem to have split from each other sometime in Middle English, where they originally had different, distinct meanings. It’s possible that they were formed due to different spellings of the same word, which took on different meanings and became separate words. Today, while they do have different technical meanings, their common use is fairly similar.

‘Competence’ refers to the state of being able to do something. If a person has competence, then they are able to do a certain task.

“Her competence in gaining information about the enemy is what allowed the mission to succeed.”

In older texts, it was also used to mean a sustainable income: one that had enough money to allow someone to survive, but not necessarily more.

“They were making very little money beyond a competence, but that was enough to allow them to endure.”

In law, ‘competence’ can also mean the legal authority to deal with a case. If, for example, a civil case is brought to a court that only does criminal cases, then the court would not have the authority to make any judgements, so they would not have competence in that case.

‘Competency’, on the other hand, means a set of skills or characteristics: the ability to perform a task based on the required assets.

“This gesture will hopefully demonstrate the business’s competency in philanthropy and customer service.”

In linguistics, ‘competency’ means having an innate knowledge of how a language works. Someone who grew up speaking a language, for instance, would be likely to have competency in that language because they subconsciously know when something contradicts any unspoken rules. Competency is also the goal of becoming fluent in a language: someone who knows the language well enough to think in it and know when something is wrong would be both fluent and competent.

Obviously, there is some overlap, since someone who has the skills is someone who is able to do something. The key difference is that competencies are what lead to competence: if someone has the skills or characteristics that lead to success, then that makes them able to do something successfully.

Originally, the two words had meanings that were more distinct. The meanings of ‘competence’ were much the same as they are today. ‘Competency’, however, meant a sustainable income – like ‘competence’ still means – as well as a sufficient supply of something. Over the years, it started to merge with ‘competence’ until they both came to mean specifically people who are prepared to do something.

Given that the words have such similar meanings and have been growing closer for quite a while, it seems likely that the two words will completely merge in informal conversations in the future. Continuing the trend, ‘competency’ is more likely to be dropped in favor of ‘competence’ in casual conversation. However, since they have different technical meanings, ‘competency’ will likely stick around in those contexts.

To summarize, competencies are the skills a person has that fulfill some requirement. Competence is a person’s overall ability to fulfill those requirements. It can also mean a sustainable income, though that is not found very often today, and they do have different technical meanings.


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1 Comment

  1. Is not another distinction that “competency” can be used as a countable noun more felicitously than “competence?”

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