Here is the simplest advice I can give on the difference between the adjectives worthy and worthwhile:
1. If you are talking about a person or thing (a noun) that deserves respect/attention/recognition/etc, use worthy.
- John is worthy of a promotion.
- That idea is worthy of consideration.
2. If you are talking about the value of doing an activity, use worthwhile.
- Brushing your teeth is worthwhile.
- If you’re going to travel abroad, getting health insurance is worthwhile.
That is the most important distinction. See below for more details.
Word Family for ‘Worth’
As you can see, worth, worthy, and worthy are all adjectives, but worth is also a noun. Let’s focus on adjectives and their most common uses.
‘Worthy’ Means Something/Someone is Deserving of Recognition/Respect/Attention
The adjective worthy describes something that deserves recognition, respect, or attention. For example:
- His songs are worthy of recognition. (= The songs are good enough/deserve to be recognized.)
- The offer was not worthy of consideration. (= It did not deserve to be considered.)
- He is a man worthy of respect. (= He deserves to be respected.)
As you can see, worthy is often combined with the preposition of.
Worthy can also be used before a noun:
- The boxer wanted to find a worthy opponent. (He was looking for an opponent that deserved his attention.)
- I think this charity is a worthy cause. (The charity deserves respect/recognition as a cause.)
In summary, if you are talking about a noun (a thing or person) that deserves respect or attention, use worthy.
‘Worthwhile’ Means an Activity Has Enough Value to Spend Time On
The adjective worthwhile describes an activity (never a person) that has enough value to spend effort or time on.
Remember that the word while is always used with an activity that takes time. For example, I read while I take the train. Here, taking the train is an action that takes time. Similarly to how we use while, you can only use worthwhile with activities that take time.
- Reading on the train is worthwhile.
- It is worthwhile to read on the train.
(Note: Worthwhile is sometimes written as two words, ‘worth while’, and sometimes ‘worth my/your/his/her/their while’.)
Both of these sentences mean that reading is an activity that has enough value to justify doing it. Here are some more examples with the actions in purple:
- Getting your teeth cleaned by a dentist is worthwhile.
- Meeting Jane was worthwhile.
- Mark is not sure if getting a Master’s degree would be worthwhile.
Note: Expressions ‘Worth the Time’ & ‘Worth Your While’
Instead of using worthwhile, you can also use the expressions worth your time / worth your while / worth it:
- Getting your teeth cleaned by a dentist is worth your time / worth the while / worth it.
- Meeting Jane was worth my time / worth it.
- Mark is not sure if getting a Master’s degree would be worth his time / worth his while / worth it.
Worthwhile + Noun
Even without the verb representing the activity, we can still use worthwhile when the activity we are referring to is understood.
- I hope reading this lesson is worthwhile. > I hope this is a worthwhile lesson. (‘This’ refers to reading the lesson)
- Visiting the dentist was worthwhile. = It was a worthwhile visit. (‘It’ refers to visiting the dentist)
That’s the end of the lesson on worthy vs worthwhile. If you’d like to read a little about worth, see below.
‘Worth’ Describes the Value of an Object
The adjective worth tells you the value (usually financial) of an object.
- That book is worth $10.
- I bought a table worth $300.
Worth can also refer to the value of investing time or effort. As mentioned above, when used this way, it is the same as worthwhile.
- It is not worth the time. (= It is not worthwhile.)
- It’s not worth the effort. (= Doing it is not worthwhile.)
Worth + Gerund (Verb in ~ing Form) = Worthwhile
If you follow the adjective worth with a verb in the ~ing form, it has the same meaning as worthwhile. Compare:
- The movie is worth seeing. = Seeing the movie is worthwhile.
- It’s worth getting travel insurance. = Getting travel insurance is worthwhile.
- If you are talking about a person or thing (a noun) that is deserving of something, use worthy.
He is worthy of respect/recognition/consideration.
- If you are talking about the value of doing an activity, there are a few options:
- Worthwhile: Exercising regularly is worthwhile.
- An expression (such as ‘worth your time/while/trouble/effort’): Exercising regularly is worth your time.
- Worth + gerund: It is worth exercising regularly.
- If you are talking about the value (usually financial) of a thing (a noun), use worth.
This house is worth four million dollars.
Do you think you understand? Try these exercises.
Exercises: Worthy, Worthwhile, or Worth
- I think her book is of an award.
- Reading to your child is .
- Roger Penrose won the Nobel Prize for his work in physics. He is of respect.
- His car is $80,000.
- This story is of your attention. It’s important.
- The company decided that opening another store would be .
- Ana had an idea, but she decided that it wasn’t mentioning.
Answers & Explanations
- worthy – The word ‘book’ is a noun, not an activity. We are saying the book is deserving of recognition.
- worthwhile – This is an activity. We are saying that this activity has value.
- worthy – We are talking about a noun here (a man), and ‘worthy’ collocates with the preposition ‘of’
- worth – We are talking about the financial value of an object here.
- worthy – We are talking about a noun here (a story), and ‘worthy’ collocates with the preposition ‘of’
- worthwhile – Opening another store is an activity.
- worth – Remember that worth + v~ing (gerund) means has the same meaning as worthwhile
I hope reading this lesson has been worthwhile. If you find a mistake or have a question, please leave a comment below.
— Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com (copyright)