Definition of “subtle” - English Dictionary

“subtle” in British English

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uk /ˈsʌt.əl/ us /ˈsʌt̬.əl/ approving

C2 not loud, bright, noticeable, or obvious in any way:

The room was painted a subtle shade of pink.
The play's message is perhaps too subtle to be understood by young children.

small but important:

There is a subtle difference between these two plans.

C2 achieved in a quiet way that does not attract attention to itself and is therefore good or clever:

a subtle plan/suggestion
subtle questions

More examples

  • I could detect subtle variances in fragrance as we strolled through the garden.
  • Her conversation sparkled with her own subtle blend of wit and charm.
  • The film's direction is subtle and stylish.
  • The gradation in tempo in this piece of music is very subtle.
  • The directors managed to secure a good deal for the company with a bit of subtle manoeuvring.
adverb uk /ˈsʌt.əl.i/ us /ˈsʌt̬.əl.i/


  • His expression changed subtly.
  • The lyrics have been subtly altered.
  • He subtly implied that she hadn't been happy at work.
  • Her appearance had changed, subtly but perceptibly.
  • If you're more subtly sexy you're still noticed but in a different way.

This discovery had subtly changed/altered the way I thought about myself.

(Definition of “subtle” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

“subtle” in American English

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us /ˈsʌt̬·əl/

not loud, bright, noticeable, or obvious:

subtle flavors
a subtle shade of pink
The subtle nuances of English pronunciation are hard to master.

Subtle can also mean small but important:

There are subtle differences between the two.
adverb us /ˈsʌt̬·əl·i, ˈsʌt·li/

He subtly affects the lives of everyone he encounters.

(Definition of “subtle” from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary © Cambridge University Press)

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