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Exceptional vs. Outstanding — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Updated on September 26, 2023
"Exceptional" refers to being rare, unusual, or extraordinarily good, while "Outstanding" denotes something extremely good or noticeably superior to others.
Exceptional vs. Outstanding — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Exceptional and Outstanding


Key Differences

Exceptional" is generally used to describe something that is rare, unusual, or extraordinary in quality, often implying that it surpasses what is common or ordinary. "Outstanding," meanwhile, is commonly used to depict something or someone as superior or noticeably excellent compared to others, indicating a high level of accomplishment or quality.
When labeling something as "exceptional," it usually implies that it deviates significantly from the norm, not only in quality but also in uniqueness and rarity. In contrast, labeling something as "outstanding" emphasizes its remarkable qualities and the way it stands out prominently among others due to its excellence and superiority.
"Exceptional" can often imply a certain uniqueness or rarity, highlighting qualities or attributes that are not commonly found. "Outstanding," on the other hand, primarily focuses on the level of accomplishment or quality, indicating that it is eminent or conspicuous in comparison to others.
In some contexts, "exceptional" could relate to both positive and negative deviations from the norm, suggesting a noteworthy difference from what is usual or typical. Conversely, "outstanding" predominantly conveys a positive connotation, reflecting preeminence or distinguished merit.
"Exceptional" and "outstanding" are often used interchangeably to commend excellence, but the former leans more toward uniqueness and rarity, while the latter accentuates superiority and noticeable excellence among peers.

Comparison Chart

Primary Connotation

Rarity and Uniqueness
Superiority and Excellence

Implied Comparison

Significant deviation from the norm
Noticeably superior to others

Usage Context

Can relate to both positive and negative deviations
Predominantly positive connotation


Uncommon attributes or qualities
Level of accomplishment or quality

Flexibility in Usage

More versatile, can refer to both good and bad
Generally used to commend or praise

Compare with Definitions


Denoting rarity or uniqueness.
She has exceptional talent in music.


Implies noticeably superior qualities.
The team gave an outstanding performance.


Indicating a significant deviation from the norm.
His knowledge of history is truly exceptional.


Generally used to commend or praise.
His dedication to the project was truly outstanding.


Can imply extraordinarily good qualities.
The chef prepared an exceptional meal.


Reflecting preeminence or distinguished merit.
She received an award for her outstanding contribution to science.


May refer to both positive and negative deviations.
The weather today is exceptionally bad.


Emphasizes remarkable or conspicuous excellence.
She has achieved outstanding results in her field.


Unusual; not typical
Late claims will only be accepted in exceptional circumstances


Denoting superiority or excellence.
He has an outstanding ability to solve complex problems.


An item in a company's accounts arising from its normal activity but much larger or smaller than usual.


"Outstanding" is a song originally performed by The Gap Band and written by member Raymond Calhoun. The song originally appeared on the group's platinum-selling 1982 album Gap Band IV. It is one of their signature songs and biggest hits, reaching the number one spot on the U.S. R&B Singles Chart in February 1983.


Being an exception; uncommon
This town is exceptional for the region in having a high tax rate.


Exceptionally good
The team's outstanding performance


Well above average; extraordinary
An exceptional memory.


Not yet paid, resolved, or dealt with
Julian's outstanding debts
Much of the work is still outstanding


Deviating widely from a norm, as of physical or mental ability
Special educational provisions for exceptional children.


Excellent or exceptionally good
An outstanding essay that received an A+.


Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare.
What an exceptional flower!


Noticeable or conspicuous
"Thiamine deficiency alone generally produces peripheral neuritis and numbness as its most outstanding features" (Vernon H. Mark).


Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.
The quality of the beer was exceptional.


Still in existence; not settled or resolved
Outstanding debts.
A long outstanding problem.


(geometry) Corresponding to something of lower dimension under a birational correspondence.
An exceptional curve; an exceptional divisor


Publicly issued and sold
Outstanding shares of stock.


An exception, or something having an exceptional value


Present participle of outstand


Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare; hence, better than the average; superior.
This particular spot had exceptional advantages.


Prominent or noticeable; standing out from others.


Far beyond what is usual in magnitude or degree;
A night of exceeding darkness
An exceptional memory
Olympian efforts to save the city from bankruptcy
The young Mozart's prodigious talents


Exceptionally good; distinguished from others by its superiority.


Surpassing what is common or usual or expected;
He paid especial attention to her
Exceptional kindness
A matter of particular and unusual importance
A special occasion
A special reason to confide in her
What's so special about the year 2000?


Projecting outwards.


Deviating widely from a norm of physical or mental ability; used especially of children below normal in intelligence;
Special educational provisions for exceptional children


Unresolved; not settled or finished.


Generally signifies something uncommon or extraordinary.
Her courage in the face of danger was exceptional.


Owed as a debt.


That stands out; undischarged; uncollected; not paid; as, outstanding obligations.
Revenues . . . as well outstanding as collected.


Conspicuously excellent; markedly superior; distinguished.


So prominent so as to attract notice; conspicuous; usually but not always in a good sense.


Distinguished from others in excellence;
Did outstanding work in human relations
An outstanding war record


Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention;
An outstanding fact of our time is that nations poisoned by anti semitism proved less fortunate in regard to their own freedom
A new theory is the most prominent feature of the book
Salient traits
A spectacular rise in prices
A striking thing about Picadilly Circus is the statue of Eros in the center
A striking resemblance between parent and child


Of major significance or importance;
A great work of art
Einstein was one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century


Owed as a debt;
Outstanding bills
The amount still owed
Undischarged debts

Common Curiosities

Is “outstanding” used predominantly in a positive context?

Yes, “outstanding” predominantly conveys a positive connotation, reflecting excellence or distinguished merit.

What does “exceptional” primarily denote?

“Exceptional” primarily denotes rarity, uniqueness, or a significant deviation from the norm.

Does “exceptional” imply uniqueness or rarity?

Yes, “exceptional” often implies uniqueness, rarity, or extraordinary qualities.

Does “outstanding” emphasize noticeable excellence?

Yes, “outstanding” emphasizes noticeable excellence and superiority among peers.

Can “exceptional” denote significant deviation from what is common?

Yes, “exceptional” denotes significant deviation from what is common or ordinary, emphasizing uniqueness.

Can “exceptional” refer to both good and bad deviations?

Yes, “exceptional” can relate to both positive and negative deviations from the norm.

Does “outstanding” usually have a commendatory tone?

Yes, “outstanding” usually has a commendatory tone, often used to praise or applaud excellence.

Can “outstanding” denote conspicuous excellence?

Yes, “outstanding” denotes conspicuous excellence and is often used to highlight remarkable qualities.

What is the main connotation of “outstanding”?

“Outstanding” mainly connotes superiority, excellence, or noticeable prominence among others.

Does “outstanding” imply a high level of accomplishment?

Yes, “outstanding” implies a high level of accomplishment or quality, often being noticeably superior to others.

Can “exceptional” be used to describe something uncommon?

Yes, “exceptional” is often used to describe something uncommon, extraordinary, or significantly different from the norm.

Can “exceptional” and “outstanding” be used interchangeably?

They can be used interchangeably in some contexts to commend excellence but have nuanced differences in connotation.

Is “outstanding” used to reflect preeminence or distinguished merit?

Yes, “outstanding” is used to reflect preeminence or distinguished merit in a field or activity.

Can “exceptional” imply extraordinarily good qualities?

Yes, “exceptional” can imply extraordinarily good, rare, or unique qualities.

Is “exceptional” versatile in its usage?

Yes, “exceptional” is versatile, able to describe a range of deviations from the norm, both positive and negative.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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