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Irregular vs. Abnormal

Ask a Teacher: Irregular vs. Abnormal
Ask a Teacher: Irregular vs. Abnormal
Irregular vs. Abnormal
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Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we will answer a question about two common synonyms, or words that have similar meanings, “abnormal” and “irregular.”


Hi VOA Learning English,

I am Riya from China. I wish to know the difference between the words “abnormal” and “irregular.” Is there any other word that has a similar meaning of irregular?




Thank you, Riya, for this great question. While “abnormal” and “irregular” are often used in similar situations, there are some notable differences. Let’s consider “abnormal” first.

“Abnormal” is an adjective meaning not normal, usual, or average. It suggests that something is troublesome or a problem. For example:

His blood tests showed an abnormal level of T cells.

The veterinarian said a viral infection caused the marmot’s abnormal behavior.

Yongqing Bao's picture of a standoff between a Tibetan fox and a marmot, taken at China's Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve.
Yongqing Bao's picture of a standoff between a Tibetan fox and a marmot, taken at China's Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve.

“Normal” is often used in describing growth or behavior. These are processes that are not the same all of the time, but experience and knowledge form our understanding of what they are. “Abnormal” is often used to describe what is outside our experience of what “normal” is.

Let’s move on to “irregular.”

As an adjective, “irregular” has several different meanings.

The first describes something that does not happen at regular, predictable times. It can describe an activity that happens for different lengths of time or that happens once in a while.

Amanda’s work schedule was very irregular. Sometimes she worked nights; other times she worked during the day.

The second meaning describes appearance that is not even, straight, or smooth. It can also describe something that does not form a regular pattern.

The coast of the state is quite irregular with its rocky hills.

A third meaning has to do with observing regular rules, laws or behavior.

The bank failed because of irregular investment practices.

In English grammar, there are “irregular” action words, or verbs. In many languages, verbs have different endings to agree with number or tense.

For example, the verb “eat” is an irregular verb. The past tense is not “eated,” it is “ate.” The past participle is “eaten.”

Other words can also have “irregular” differences from the usual patterns of grammar.

“Irregular” can be a noun, too. It can describe a person belonging to a military force that is outside of the national armed forces of a country. Such forces usually do not have the same command structure and are often called paramilitary forces.

“Irregular” also can mean a piece of clothing that is a little damaged, or not exactly perfect, and is sold in some stores at a lower price than normal.

So, while these two words are often used as synonyms, “irregular” has more meanings and is often used as both an adjective and a noun. And it might be a better word choice in some situations depending on what you want to say.

Please let us know if these explanations and examples have helped you, Riya.

What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

pattern – n. a regular and repeated way in which something happens

participle n. (grammar) a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action and that can also be used like an adjective


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