Intrusive and obtrusive both refer to invading a situation. Obtrusive is the more intentional one of these. The meanings and sounds of both words are close enough that it can be easy to confuse them. Some thesauruses present the words as synonyms, but there are a few subtle distinctions between them.
These two words have very similar meanings. They both involve inserting oneself into a situation, especially without being welcomed or invited. They’re both adjectives that describe behaviors, people, or things. You can talk about an intrusive action or intrusive person. You can also talk about intrusive commercials interrupting a TV show. The word obtrusive can also apply to these categories.
Both words share a common Latin root. The ending -trude originally came from the Latin trudere. This word means to thrust, which relates to the meanings of both intrusive and obtrusive.
Those who are intrusive aren’t always trying to get attention. They may interfere in others’ affairs by accident. Let’s say Jon goes into the living room to relax, only to find Lily and Jane having a private conservation in there. In this case he’s being intrusive because he’s unintentionally invading something he isn’t meant to be a part of.
Being obtrusive means being much bolder with the interference. So let’s say Jon knows knows that Lily and Jane are talking in the other room and barges in wanting to know what is going on. In this case he’s obtrusive because he’s intentionally invading something he’s not meant to be a part of.
Perspective is another difference between the two words. Intrusive is often from the perspective of the one being intruded upon. In the example above, Jon entering the living room is intrusive from the point of view of Lily and Jane. Obtrusive is often from the point of view of others not involved in the situation. For example, people in other rooms of the same house may find Jon’s venture into the living room obtrusive. Sometimes the word obtrusive is from the point of view of those subject to the intrusion.
Examples in Literature
A classic example of intrusive and obtrusive behavior in literature is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the first chapter of this book, a hobbit named of Bilbo Baggins has an unsuspected invasion of dwarves into his home. The dwarves help themselves to his food and attempt to drag him on a dangerous adventure. From the perspective of the degree of their invasion, their behavior is obtrusive. From Bilbo’s point of view, it can be considered intrusive.
Intrusive and obtrusive are both adjectives that describe a person or thing that inserts itself into a situation without welcome. The word obtrusive is often a more severe case of this than intrusive. The first chapter of The Hobbit is a good example of these words in literature.