Definition of subtle in English:



  • 1(especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe.

    ‘his language expresses rich and subtle meanings’
    • ‘But the changes are so subtle that they are difficult to apprehend and you cannot be certain that this is the case.’
    • ‘Imaging techniques used by the team can demonstrate extremely subtle changes in the structures of the brain as the disease progresses and detect any change in response to treatment.’
    • ‘They alleviate the difficulties of observing subtle changes that are difficult to observe with more established methods such as superimposition.’
    • ‘For how spare it is, the track is incredibly moving as every subtle change and alteration in the slowly accumulating tones takes on heavy emotional weight.’
    • ‘The software analyses voice patterns, and detects subtle changes which can point to the claimants lying.’
    • ‘However, when both languages are in the same book, subtle differences make it difficult for some readers, usually those reading in Spanish.’
    • ‘But change is subtle and sometimes imperceptible.’
    • ‘But mostly change is subtle, almost delicate, and it is viewed most clearly not from the stand or drawing room but with a squint-eyed look from across the net.’
    • ‘More fundamentally, this book is at times reckless in its disregard for the subtle changes in the representation of religious differences across the period from Shakespeare to Milton.’
    • ‘Again it appears to be that the most sensitive organ is the liver, and nobody has done a careful study to look at whether there are subtle changes in muscle or other tissues yet.’
    • ‘They can also remove certain features of a landscape to enhance others and isolate subtle changes with mathematical precision.’
    • ‘Although there are subtle changes on Parade, it's not radically dissimilar to what fans have come to expect.’
    • ‘I miss subtle changes in language over a magazine's course.’
    • ‘The actors lip-synch the songs and Neil creates different personalities with subtle changes in his voice.’
    • ‘I saw young black spruces growing higher than ever before on boreal hillsides in Alaska, and subtle changes transform the tundra.’
    • ‘I've been online since 1996 as a writer, and the sea change was subtle, but serious.’
    • ‘As time went by, a subtle change began to overtake her, transforming her by degrees into another person hardly recognizable to her children.’
    • ‘But the catches have been going down faster than the quotas and environmentalists suspect the bigger factor is a chain of subtle changes triggered by a slight rise in temperature in the North Sea.’
    • ‘Some of us have a finely tuned nose, able to detect subtle differences and describe fragrance with colourful adjectives such as musky, syrupy and spicy.’
    • ‘But take a look at the television advertisements targeting Hispanic voters in this state, and you'll notice a subtle change.’
    fine, fine-drawn, ultra-fine, nice, overnice, minute, precise, narrow, tenuous
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    1. 1.1(of a mixture or effect) delicately complex and understated.
      ‘subtle lighting’
      • ‘No study can adequately predict the long-term and subtle effects of a vaccine prior to its introduction to a group as large as most of the population of our planet.’
      • ‘The effect is subtle, yet it works, and while the overall result is undeniably decadent, the space feels individual as opposed to ostentatious.’
      • ‘The defiant stare, too, would have made a subtle effect, emphasised by the averted, pixellated face of the tubby, shorter guard.’
      • ‘This elusive goal requires a deep understanding of the components of speech and of the subtle effects of a person's volume, pitch, timing and emphasis.’
      • ‘White tea should only be blended with very subtle ingredients, if any at all, to prevent it from being overpowered.’
      • ‘Creamy nutty oak flavours backing up some subtle fruit flavours of nectarine, peach and apple juice.’
      • ‘Various sweet dishes, of which ice cream is the most obvious example, can be given a subtle tea flavour, but some is also used in some parts of the world for savoury dishes.’
      • ‘Moreover, pasteurisation would ruin the subtle cheese flavours stemming from the hillside pastures.’
      • ‘My Munchurian Chicken was mild, the chicken complemented by a subtle sauce flavoured with onions, garlic, ginger, finely chopped herbs and plenty of pepper.’
      • ‘The way he used elements of other film scores for certain subtle effects.’
      • ‘The pasta, which was tossed in a white wine and cream sauce, received a good response and was praised for its subtle mushroom flavours.’
      • ‘Try using pigment pads on dark paper for a subtle effect.’
      • ‘Fortunately it means bargain prices for this complex and subtle wine, which is on sale in limited quantities for €8.89 a bottle.’
      • ‘By themselves, these genes had only subtle effects on the temporal pattern of egg laying.’
      • ‘More subtle effects of air resistance on projectile motion are related to the shape and rotation of the object.’
      • ‘Limes have a stimulating, wake-me-up freshness that sets off the less obvious flavours of more subtle fruits and vegetables.’
      • ‘The last time there was wind from this direction it brought with it a torrential horizontal downpour of rain, but no hope or fear of that this time. The effect is more subtle.’
      • ‘There is a hint of gold and a very slight sweetness with a subtle herb flavour and a gentle smell of newly-mown hay: a delicate flavouring that doesn't overpower the vodka.’
      • ‘A third factor is that subtle effects of preen oil may not be detectable in captive birds.’
      • ‘It's quite a subtle effect, but it's definitely there.’
      understated, low-key, muted, toned down, subdued
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    2. 1.2Capable of making fine distinctions.
      ‘a subtle mind’
      • ‘However, the truth is the mind is very subtle and it has the ability to rationalize which can turn the obvious into the ambiguous, and vice versa.’
      • ‘One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie.’
      • ‘That was not an impossible ideal but it did require a subtle mind to grasp it.’
      • ‘She read and brooded over philosophical problems; her mind was subtle, but her judgements were sometimes uncertain.’
      • ‘There is another, parsimonious explanation that escapes many would be subtle minds.’
      astute, keen, quick, fine, acute, sharp, razor-like, razor-sharp, rapier-like, canny, shrewd, aware, perceptive, discerning, sensitive, discriminating, penetrating, sagacious, wise, clever, intelligent, skilful, artful
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    3. 1.3Arranged in an ingenious and elaborate way.
      ‘the German plan was simple yet subtle’
      • ‘I've found more subtle, quiet ways to make sure everyone around pays attention to me now.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Instead, these works are subtle and quiet, yet filled with mood.’
      • ‘By means of ingenious and subtle arguments and making the fewest possible assumptions, he arrived at the following conclusions.’
  • 2Making use of clever and indirect methods to achieve something.

    ‘he tried a more subtle approach’
    • ‘Some of the solutions to your problems are very subtle and clever.’
    • ‘His methods aren't subtle but when you have megalomaniacal ambitions it's easy not to be shy about getting your hands dirty while disposing of assorted Latino gangsters.’
    • ‘However subtle and indirect, its provenance in the peace settlement reveals it to be too much an enterprise of political imposition, and too little of genuine consent.’
    • ‘More subtle methods were employed in achieving operational and strategic success.’
    • ‘Girls tend to use more indirect, subtle, and social methods such as exclusion, manipulation, and spreading rumors.’
    • ‘It is subtle and clever and knows how to get our attention.’
    • ‘Siblings' methods may be subtle, but they're no less cutting.’
    • ‘Jesus used an indirect and subtle method of communication which may well have been more effective than direct, dogmatic statements.’
    • ‘These were the new readers the Irish Times had to attract in order to survive, and Gageby set out on a subtle course to achieve it.’
    • ‘They would prefer more subtle methods of signaling unhappiness with a stock.’
    • ‘Throughout the history of nations, inflation has been a time-honored and subtle method for governments to plunder its citizenry.’
    • ‘The characters are revealed in clever and subtle ways.’
    • ‘He will use diplomatic methods and more subtle military pressure.’
    • ‘The function of formal rules and accountability mechanisms in the regulation of police work is more indirect and subtle.’
    • ‘Then again, maybe we won't, as this is the kind of information that can be used in very subtle ways to achieve certain ends.’
    • ‘Yet the approach may be more subtle - and quite clever as well.’
    • ‘Lynn's method is at once subtle and mechanical.’
    • ‘Instead, Adams is relying on more subtle methods to protect his old lady's integrity.’
    • ‘These strategic dilemmas are supported with some subtle and clever tactical dynamics.’
    • ‘But their moves were quiet and furtive, and hard to trace, and so I was forced to use subtle methods to seek the root of this vile blossom.’
  • 3archaic Crafty; cunning.

    ‘the subtle fiend dissembled’
    • ‘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.’
    ingenious, clever, skilful, adroit, cunning, crafty, wily, artful, devious
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Middle English (also in the sense ‘not easily understood’): from Old French sotil, from Latin subtilis.