Translucent vs. transparent?

Transparent materials are clear and entirely see-through. Translucent materials are only partially clear and prevent full visibility. 

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What is the difference between translucent and transparent?

Translucent and transparent are similar adjectives with different meanings. The simplest distinction between these terms involves how easily you can see through an object and visualize the other side. 

Transparent objects allow all light or electromagnetic rays to pass through and create a clearly visible image of the other side. Examples of transparent materials include: 

  • Clear glass 
  • Clear plastics
  • Clear water 
  • Clean air 

Translucent materials only allow a certain amount of light to pass through, causing refraction or scattering of light that prevents full visibility of the other side. Examples include: 

  • Frosted glass 
  • Window film
  • Lead glass (aka “crystal”)
  • Tiffany glass
  • Diamonds or other semi-transparent stones
  • Sunglasses 
  • Thin paper and fabrics
  • Murky water 
  • Smoke  

Translucent and transparent are more difficult to distinguish when they describe people, actions, or organizations. In most cases, English speakers use transparent, not translucent, while describing: 

  • A person with clear and detectable motives, feelings, or thoughts. 
  • An action that is easily detected and perceived.
  • An organization whose activities and objectives are open to public scrutiny. 

What is the definition of translucent?

The word translucent is an adjective that describes semi-clear substances or surfaces whose clarity falls between transparent and opaque. As noted by the New Oxford English Dictionary, a translucent object allows light to pass through, but it doesn’t allow detailed images to appear on the other side (“Translucent” 1840). 

Sentence examples:

  • “‘Milky nails’ aren’t meant to be opaque or sheer, but rather somewhere in the middle with a subtly translucent feel that’s reminiscent of — you guessed it — milk.” — Allure 
  • “Laced with hyaluronic acid and light-catching pigments, it’s just the ticket if you’re looking to nab that translucent, glassy skin effect.” — The Kit
  • “Artists used everything from minimalist translucent acrylic to steel chains to painted wood and ceramic.” — Fast Company
  • “The wire is based on a recently developed translucent polyphenylene thermoplastic, whose rigid molecular structure provides high strength.” — EJO
  • “A life in complete darkness means these animals are often blind, beautifully translucent and often extremely localized…” — Cosmos

Synonyms

Diaphanous, filmy, gauzy, gossamer, gossamery, lucid, see-through, sheer, semi-transparent.

Antonyms

Cloudy, foggy, hazy, murky, nebulous, opaque, smoky.

What is the definition of transparent?

The adjective transparent describes materials that either allow light, transmitted heat, and other electromagnetic rays to pass through undistorted. When light passes through transparent materials, all objects behind them are clearly displayed.

Sentence examples:

  • “France encourages [the] use of transparent masks to help those with hearing loss.” — NPR  
  • “Solar panels could soon be transparent enough to be windows.” — SustainabilityTimes
  • Transparent wood is considered a promising structural and light management material for energy-efficient engineering applications.” — Science Advances

Outside of describing physical properties, transparent can describe someone whose motivations, feelings, or actions are easily perceived and understood. While describing a transparent organization, however, the adjective should reflect how the organization’s activities are open to public scrutiny. 

Sentence examples:

  • “Biden campaign pledges ‘transparent, open’ relationship with [the] press as Biden prepares for convention speech.” — ABC News
  • “The ingredient transparency movement has been driven by a range of brands since 2013… which list the percentages for their active ingredients.” — Glossy
  • “FDA commissioner says vaccine approval process will be transparent and guided by data.” — Scientific American
  • “To be more transparent in the coming year, I plan to consistently share news, both good and bad.” — Forbes

Synonyms

Clear, colorless, crystal, crystal clear, crystalline, limpid, liquid, lucent, pellucid, see-through, semi-transparent, sheer, uncolored. 

Antonyms

Cloudy, colored, dark, dense, foggy, glazed, hazy, muddy, murky, opaque, tinted.

Can we use transparent and translucent interchangeably?

There are times when you’ll encounter interchangeable use of transparent and translucent to describe sheer materials or something that is “free from disguise or falseness.” For instance, there are countless fashion blogs that reference silk organza fabrics as “transparent,” when the more accurate term is actually “translucent.

Similar attributes occur for fabrics made out of fine cotton, lace, chiffon, or tulle, where a garment is nearly see-through (transparent) but not actually exposing what’s underneath (translucent).  

But while this practice is common and sometimes necessary to avoid word redundancy, it’s important to understand how it can obscure the meaning of transparent and translucent

What makes something transparent vs. translucent?

In theory, anything that is properly transparent lacks color (nearly invisible), such as clear air, glass, or water. When something is transparent, it allows the brilliant spectrum of every color to pass through undisturbed so that everything is visible

Translucent materials are tinted, hazy, or sheer, and they may not allow every wavelength of light to pass through. Rose-tinted lip gloss? Translucent. Purple jelly sandals? Translucent. Morning fog? Technically, you can call it translucent, but only when you can nearly see through to the other side. 

In essence, anything that causes significant diffusion, a scattering of light, or obstruction of visibility (to any degree) holds the property of translucency, not transparency

What makes a person transparent vs. translucent?

When we use transparent or translucent to describe people, their meanings often take a metaphorical form (after all, there’s no way humans can actually be transparent). 

Whenever you see the word transparent applied to a person or organization, it’s describing their character, behavior, motivations, or track record. Professionals or organizations often use the term transparency to reference an openness to public scrutiny or their willingness to detail operations that occur behind closed doors. 

The word translucent is seldom appropriate for describing people or organizations in the same context. One can go as far as to say that calling someone’s activity or character “semi-transparent” or “translucent” implies a degree of dishonesty or secrecy, which may not be your intention. 

When you’re inclined to describe someone’s actions or motivations as translucent, try considering a more specific adjective such as vague, cryptic, mysterious, complicated, ambiguous, or obscure. The same is true of translucent organizational activity, where it’s often more accurate to use shady, perplexing, strange, secretive, or sometimes biased or manipulative

If you are using the word translucent to describe a person’s appearance, it may imply that they have very pale skin or lack pigmentation altogether. This use of translucent makes sense from a clinical or literary point of view, but we don’t recommend dropping this adjective loosely.

To drive the point home, there’s no polite alternative to describing someone’s appearance as translucent. Synonyms of this sense involve words like faded, pasty, sick, anemic, doughy, ghastly, or washed-out–– which are, obviously, not very flattering. 

Opaque vs. translucent vs. transparent

The word opaque is a common misnomer for translucent or transparent, which is unfortunate because they are opposite terms. If something is opaque, it either blocks all light or difficult to understand and explain. 

For example, solid black objects are opaque because the color black absorbs all light instead of reflecting it. However, many opaque substances are made of metal, wood, or concrete because they prevent any light from passing through. 

The same understanding of opaque metaphorically applies to people, organizations, or concepts when it implies a sense of stubbornness, complexity, or complete secrecy. Now, you may recall how these attributes correspond to synonyms of translucence, so the meaning of this adjective can boil down to degrees of opacity or translucency

Examples of opaque behavior or concepts might include information within classified documents, your thoughts, or any form of secret or unperceivable communication, for that matter. Degrees of opacity and translucency come into play for topics that involve one’s subjective understanding of the matter. 

For instance, concepts involving Wikipedia editing, the “dark web,” string theory, cryptocurrency, or “the occult” are all fairly “translucent,” but for those who know nothing about them, they are very difficult to understand (opaque). 

How to use opaque in a sentence?

Use the adjective opaque to describe solid and/or dark colored objects, or materials that do not allow light to pass through. 

Sentence examples:

  • “Out of sight under that opaque surface, a whole world of new plants and invertebrates is being incubated.” — The Guardian 
  • “Classic details like boule buttons and opaque tights find a new form here, merging with varied patterns.” — V Magazine

People, actions, or concepts are opaque when they are difficult to understand, explain, or change. 

Sentence examples:

  • “But if nothing else, Ms. Arora’s boldness has touched a nerve at the 193-member organization and thrown attention on the historically opaque way that its leader is picked.” — The New York Times
  • “Mortgage banker’s failed appeal sheds light on opaque SEC bounty process.” — Reuters

Additional reading for translucent vs. transparent

If you enjoy learning about English grammar, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics, such as: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between translucent and transparent with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: The word transparent means something is clear and completely see-through. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. Which of the following is not synonymous with transparent
    a. Clear
    b. Tinted
    c. Colorless
    d. Lucent
  3. ___________ is the opposite property of translucency. 
    a. Translucency
    b. Transparency 
    c. Opacity
    d. B and C
  4. Which is not an opaque object? 
    a. Wooden trophy
    b. Aluminum can
    c. Ice sculpture 
    d. Concrete sidewalk
  5. Which is not an effect of translucency? 
    a. Image formation 
    b. Reflection
    c. Significant diffusion
    d. Non Distorted visible light

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. C
  5. D

Sources

  1. Davis, J., et al. “Blind shrimps, translucent snails.” Cosmos, Cosmosmagazine.com, 17 Feb 2021. 
  2. Fasanella, K. “Kendall Jenner’s Milky White Manicure Is the Prettiest Neutral Nail Look for Winter.” Allure, Allure.com, 17 Jan 2021. 
  3. Flora, L. “Art of Shaving’s founders launch ‘radically transparent’ skin-care brand.” Glossy, Glossy.co, 2 Feb 2021. 
  4. Garman, S. “Emporio Armani Presents Their Fall/Winter 2021 Womenswear CollectionV Magazine, VMagazine.com, 25 Feb 2021. 
  5. Gladstone, R. “Who Is Arora Akanksha, the 34-Year-Old Running for U.N. Secretary General?The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 26 Feb 2021.
  6. Goldberg, J.A. et al. “Viscoelastic properties of an aesthetic translucent orthodontic wire.” European Journal of Orthodontics, vol. 33, issue 6, pp. 673–678, Oxford Academic, 15 Dec 2010. 
  7. Hudson, S. “Country diary: ghost ponds can be priceless botanical time capsules.” The Guardian, TheGuardian.com, 14 Dec 2020.
  8. Lalancette, K. “Glowy Serums are the Ultimate Winter Complexion Saviour.” The Kit, TheKit.ca, 25 Jan 2021. 
  9. Opaque.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  10. Scattering of Light.” CK-12, CK-12 Foundation, 16 Oct 2020. 
  11. Smith, L. “50 designers reimagine the humble toilet paper holder.” Fast Company, FastCompany.com, 16 Sept 2020. 
  12. Translucent.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  13. “Translucent.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1840. 
  14. Transparent.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  15. Transparent.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  16. Xia, Q. et al. “Solar-assisted fabrication of large-scale, patternable transparent wood.” Science Advances, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 27 Jan 2021. 
  17. YEC. “Eight Ways To Be More Transparent With Staff In 2021.” Forbes, Forbes.com, 2 Feb 2021.