Definition of subtle in English:

Share this entry


Pronunciation: /ˈsədl/

adjective (subtler, subtlest)

1(Especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze 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, nice, hair-splitting
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.
1.2Making 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.
1.3Capable 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.
1.4Arranged in an ingenious and elaborate way.
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.
1.5 archaic Crafty; cunning.
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.



Pronunciation: /ˈsəd(ə)lnəs/
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’.


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

  • ‘Not easily understood’ was an early sense of subtle, via Old French sotil from Latin subtilis meaning ‘fine, delicate’.

Words that rhyme with subtle

buttle, cuttle, rebuttal, scuttle, shuttle, surrebuttal

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: sub·tle

Share this entry

What do you find interesting about this word or phrase?

Comments that don't adhere to our Community Guidelines may be moderated or removed.