Definition of subtle in English:


Line breaks: sub¦tle
Pronunciation: /ˈsʌt(ə)l

adjective (subtler, subtlest)

  • 1(Especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe: his language expresses rich and subtle meanings
    More example sentences
    • But the changes are so subtle that they are difficult to apprehend and you cannot be certain that this is the case.
    • They can also remove certain features of a landscape to enhance others and isolate subtle changes with mathematical precision.
    • They alleviate the difficulties of observing subtle changes that are difficult to observe with more established methods such as superimposition.
    fine, fine-drawn, ultra-fine, nice, overnice, minute, precise, narrow, tenuous; hair-splitting, indistinct, indefinite, elusive, abstruse
    informal minuscule
  • 1.1(Of a mixture or effect) delicately complex and understated: subtle lighting
    More example sentences
    • My Munchurian Chicken was mild, the chicken complemented by a subtle sauce flavoured with onions, garlic, ginger, finely chopped herbs and plenty of pepper.
    • Limes have a stimulating, wake-me-up freshness that sets off the less obvious flavours of more subtle fruits and vegetables.
    • Fortunately it means bargain prices for this complex and subtle wine, which is on sale in limited quantities for €8.89 a bottle.
    understated, low-key, muted, toned down, subdued; delicate, faint, pale, soft, indistinct, indefinite, vague, washed out
  • 1.2Capable of making fine distinctions: a subtle mind
    More example sentences
    • One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie.
    • There is another, parsimonious explanation that escapes many would be subtle minds.
    • That was not an impossible ideal but it did require a subtle mind to grasp it.
    astute, keen, quick, fine, acute, sharp, razor-like, razor-sharp, rapier-like, canny, shrewd, aware, perceptive, discerning, sensitive, discriminating, penetrating, sagacious, wise, clever, intelligent, skilful, artful; sapient, percipient, perspicacious
    informal on the ball, savvy
    archaic politic
  • 1.3Arranged in an ingenious and elaborate way: the German plan was simple yet subtle
    More example sentences
    • By means of ingenious and subtle arguments and making the fewest possible assumptions, he arrived at the following conclusions.
    • The rum opens up the subtle and elaborate world of flavours within each chocolate.
    • Instead, they rally the people through subtle statements straight from the heart.
  • 2Making use of clever and indirect methods to achieve something: he tried a more subtle approach
    More example sentences
    • Girls tend to use more indirect, subtle, and social methods such as exclusion, manipulation, and spreading rumors.
    • Jesus used an indirect and subtle method of communication which may well have been more effective than direct, dogmatic statements.
    • Yet the approach may be more subtle - and quite clever as well.
  • 3 archaic Crafty; cunning: the subtle fiend dissembled
    More example sentences
    • But the serpent was as subtle and cunning as ever, more than any other beast who dwelt within the garden which the Gods had made.
    • The King James Version uses subtle rather than crafty, but the meaning is the same.
    ingenious, clever, skilful, adroit, cunning, crafty, wily, artful, devious



More example sentences
  • But Jake's sensitivity and subtleness in this role are just huge.
  • One of those paths led to a life of complacency, of subtleness and of eternal peace while the other path led to a small possibility of a mysterious future unknown to him but gave a sense of greatness that thrilled the man to the bone.
  • I would have liked it even better had it been more of peach and cardamom taste, but it was still nice and sweet, and you might see its subtleness as ‘discreet’.


[as submodifier]: each is subtly different from the others
More example sentences
  • The Chancellor returns to a government, and a party, subtly different from the one he left late last week.
  • And the classroom is subtly different from those to be found in ordinary schools.
  • New material is not only that extra bit tougher but it's also subtly more progressive.


Middle English (also in the sense 'not easily understood'): from Old French sotil, from Latin subtilis.

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Pronunciation: skəʊʃ
a small amount; a little