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Oscillate vs. Vacillate — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Updated on September 27, 2023
Oscillate primarily refers to moving back and forth at a regular speed, especially as inherent to mechanical objects or physical quantities, while Vacillate refers to being indecisive or wavering between different opinions or actions.
Oscillate vs. Vacillate — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Oscillate and Vacillate

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Key Differences

Oscillate and Vacillate, though seemingly similar due to the notion of back-and-forth movement, differ significantly in application and context. Oscillate is mostly used in physics and engineering to describe the regular, periodic movement of an object or quantity between two points, such as the oscillation of a pendulum. It implies a precise, measurable, and often predictable movement. Vacillate, however, is typically used to describe indecision in thought or action, representing a wavering between different opinions, emotions, or choices, and it often implies a lack of resolution or consistency.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 26, 2023
While oscillate is more about the physical and measurable movement, vacillate is about the mental state and subjective experience of indecision. Oscillating objects move to and fro in a regular and usually predictable pattern, like the swinging of a pendulum or the fluctuation of an electrical current. Vacillating individuals, however, experience fluctuating thoughts and feelings, unable to settle on a particular stance, decision, or action, reflecting a sense of instability or uncertainty.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 26, 2023
The contexts in which oscillate and vacillate are used also vary widely. Oscillate is a term you might encounter in scientific discussions, technical manuals, or descriptions of machinery, referring to the systematic movement or fluctuation in values or positions. Vacillate, however, appears more in everyday language, literary works, or psychological discussions, depicting the human experience of indecision and internal conflict.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 26, 2023
In the realms of interpretation and implication, to oscillate doesn’t necessarily imply a problem or malfunction unless it’s unintended or excessive, it’s usually a natural phenomenon or a designed feature. However, to vacillate often implies a difficulty, a struggle within oneself to reach a decision or maintain a consistent stance or emotion, potentially leading to indecisiveness, delay, or inability to act.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 26, 2023

Comparison Chart

Field of Usage

Physics, Engineering, Sciences.
Psychology, Everyday language, Literature.
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Sep 26, 2023
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Nature

Physical, measurable, predictable movement or fluctuation.
Mental, subjective, fluctuating indecision.
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Sep 26, 2023

Implication

Regular, inherent, or designed movement or fluctuation.
Struggle, internal conflict, inability to decide.
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Contexts

Scientific discussions, technical manuals, machinery.
Human experience, internal dilemmas, emotional states.
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Sep 26, 2023

Typical Subject

Objects, quantities, values.
Individuals, thoughts, emotions, decisions.
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Compare with Definitions

Oscillate

Oscillate implies a precise, measurable, and often predictable movement.
The scientist noted how the pendulum would oscillate with perfect regularity.
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Sep 26, 2023

Vacillate

Vacillate portrays the human experience of indecision and internal conflict.
Unable to decide, she continued to vacillate, causing frustration among her friends.
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Sep 26, 2023

Oscillate

Oscillate can also mean to vary between opposing beliefs, feelings, or theories.
His mood seemed to oscillate between happiness and despair.
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Vacillate

Vacillate implies a lack of resolution or consistency in thoughts or actions.
Politicians often vacillate, changing their stances based on public opinion.
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Oscillate

Oscillate often denotes regular, inherent, or designed movement or fluctuation.
The sound waves oscillated through the air, creating a harmonious melody.
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Vacillate

Vacillate is typically used regarding mental states or decisions.
I tend to vacillate between feeling optimistic and pessimistic.
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Oscillate

Oscillate is used in the context of mechanical objects or physical quantities.
The voltage across the resistor would oscillate at a constant frequency.
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Vacillate

Vacillate refers to being indecisive or wavering between different opinions or actions.
He would vacillate for hours about which movie to watch.
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Oscillate

Oscillate refers to moving or swinging back and forth at a regular speed.
The fan continued to oscillate, moving air around the room.
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Vacillate

Vacillate often depicts a sense of instability or uncertainty.
He would vacillate, unsure of whether to take the risk or play it safe.
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Oscillate

Move or swing back and forth in a regular rhythm
The grain pan near the front of the combine oscillates back and forth
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Vacillate

Waver between different opinions or actions; be indecisive
I vacillated between teaching and journalism
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Oscillate

Vary in magnitude or position in a regular manner about a central point.
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Vacillate

To be unable to choose between different courses of action or opinions; waver
She vacillated about whether to leave.
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Oscillate

To swing back and forth with a steady, uninterrupted rhythm.
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Vacillate

To change between one state and another; fluctuate
The weather vacillated between sunny and rainy.
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Oscillate

To waver, as between conflicting opinions or courses of action; vacillate
"The court has oscillated over the decades from more liberal to less, more conservative to less, depending upon who was president at the time of vacancies" (Gordon J. Humphrey).
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Vacillate

(Archaic) To sway from one side to the other.
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Oscillate

(Physics) To vary between alternate extremes, usually within a definable period of time.
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Vacillate

(intransitive) To sway unsteadily from one side to the other; oscillate.
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Oscillate

(intransitive) To swing back and forth, especially if with a regular rhythm.
A pendulum oscillates slower as it gets longer.
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Vacillate

(intransitive) To swing indecisively from one course of action or opinion to another.
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Oscillate

(intransitive) To vacillate between conflicting opinions, etc.
The mood for change oscillated from day to day.
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Vacillate

To move one way and the other; to reel or stagger; to waver.
[A spheroid] is always liable to shift and vacillatefrom one axis to another.
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Oscillate

(intransitive) To vary above and below a mean value.
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Vacillate

To fluctuate in mind or opinion; to be unsteady or inconstant; to waver.
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Oscillate

To move backward and forward; to vibrate like a pendulum; to swing; to sway.
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Vacillate

Be undecided about something; waver between conflicting positions or courses of action;
He oscillates between accepting the new position and retirement
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Oscillate

To vary or fluctuate between fixed limits; to act or move in a fickle or fluctuating manner; to change repeatedly, back and forth.
The amount of superior families oscillates rather than changes, that is, it fluctuates within fixed limits.
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Vacillate

Move or sway in a rising and falling or wavelike pattern;
The line on the monitor vacillated
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Oscillate

Be undecided about something; waver between conflicting positions or courses of action;
He oscillates between accepting the new position and retirement
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Oscillate

Move or swing from side to side regularly;
The needle on the meter was oscillating
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Common Curiosities

Is oscillate more used in scientific contexts?

Yes, oscillate is often used in scientific and technical contexts to describe physical and measurable movements or fluctuations.
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Sep 26, 2023

Does vacillate imply a mental struggle?

Yes, vacillate typically implies a mental or internal struggle, portraying indecision, and fluctuating thoughts or emotions.
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Sep 26, 2023

Can oscillate also refer to varying between opposing beliefs?

Yes, oscillate can also mean to vary between opposing beliefs, feelings, or theories, but it is often used more to describe physical movements.
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What does oscillate primarily refer to?

Oscillate primarily refers to a regular, periodic movement of an object or quantity between two points, often in a measurable and predictable manner.
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Sep 26, 2023

What does vacillate mean?

Vacillate refers to wavering between different opinions or actions, indicating indecision or a lack of resolution.
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Sep 26, 2023

Can oscillate imply a designed or natural phenomenon?

Yes, to oscillate can represent either a natural phenomenon or a designed feature, often not implying a problem unless unintended or excessive.
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Can oscillation be measured precisely in scientific contexts?

Absolutely, oscillation is measurable and is often precisely calculated in scientific contexts to understand the regularity and patterns of movement.
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Sep 26, 2023

Is vacillate related to the inability to decide?

Absolutely, vacillate is closely related to the inability to make decisions, depicting internal conflict and fluctuating opinions.
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Sep 26, 2023

Is the movement in oscillation usually predictable?

Yes, the movement in oscillation is usually regular and predictable, like the swinging of a pendulum.
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Does vacillate portray a sense of instability?

Yes, vacillate often portrays a sense of instability or uncertainty, reflecting an individual’s wavering thoughts and feelings.
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Sep 26, 2023

Is vacillate used to describe fluctuating emotional states?

Yes, vacillate is typically used to describe fluctuating emotional states, thoughts, and decisions, indicating internal dilemmas.
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Sep 26, 2023

Can vacillate lead to delay or inability to act?

Indeed, vacillate often leads to delay or inability to act due to the ongoing internal conflict and indecision.
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Sep 26, 2023

Is oscillate usually inherent to mechanical objects?

Yes, oscillate is often inherent to mechanical objects or related to the periodic fluctuation in physical quantities.
Tayyaba Rehman
Sep 26, 2023

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to askdifference.com. 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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