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“Maternal” vs. “Paternal”: What’s The Difference?

family of three (mom, daughter, and dad) lying on their bellies and smiling at the camera, blue filter.

The words maternal and paternal pop up a lot in different phrases, including ones like maternal instincts, paternal grandmother, maternal leave, and paternal DNA.

You probably know that both words have to do with mothers and fathers, but which is which?

In this article, we’ll define the different meanings of maternal and paternal, explain the simple difference between them, and we’ll even cover the related terms maternity, paternity, and parental.

Quick summary

Maternal describes things related to a mother or motherhood. Paternal describes things related to a father or fatherhood. Sometimes, they mean motherly and fatherly, as in phrases like maternal/paternal instincts. But they can also be used more narrowly to distinguish relations involving a mother or a father, such as in terms like maternal/paternal grandmother. In some cases, the gender-neutral term parental can be used in place of maternal or paternal as well as maternity or paternity.

maternal vs. paternal

The adjective maternal is used to describe things relating to mothers or motherhood. The adjective paternal is used to describe things relating to fathers or fatherhood. Both terms can have different shades of meaning.

For example, maternal can mean the same thing as motherly and paternal can mean the same thing as fatherly—that is, they can be used in a positive way to describe behavior befitting the kind of parent they refer to. This sense of the words is commonly used in phrases like maternal/paternal instincts and maternal/paternal affection. They can sometimes be applied this way even if the person is not actually a parent, or even if they’re not a parent of the person they’re interacting with, as in You can tell by how good she is with the kids that Kate has maternal instincts—she would make a great mom.

Other common phrases that use these words include maternal/paternal care and maternal/paternal heritage. In these cases and others, they’re specifically used in reference to an actual parental relationship (as opposed to describing behavior that’s simply like a parent).

When applied to familial titles like grandfather, the adjectives maternal and paternal indicate whether the relation is through the person’s mother or father. For example, a person’s maternal grandfather is their mother’s father, while a person’s paternal grandfather is their father’s father.

Learn some words for other family connections like aunts and uncles, as well as gender-neutral terms.

Similarly, the term paternal DNA indicates that the DNA was inherited from a person’s father; maternal DNA is inherited from the mother.

Unsurprisingly, the word maternal comes from the Latin mater, meaning “mother,” while paternal comes from the Latin pater, meaning “father.” These roots are also the source of the related words matriarch and patriarch and maternity and paternity.

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maternity vs. paternity

The word maternity can be used as a noun and as an adjective to describe something that involves motherhood. The word paternity, on the other hand, relates to fatherhood or something that involves being a father.

Like maternal and paternal, the terms maternity and paternity are often used in phrases that distinguish whether something relates to a mother or a father. For example, maternity leave refers to leave for a mother, while paternity leave refers to leave for a father. The terms perform the same distinguishing function in maternity/paternity test.

Maternal is also used in some other common phrases, such as maternity clothes and maternity ward.

Is there a gender-neutral form?

Maternal, paternal, maternity, and paternity make distinctions based on gender. Sometimes, this is the whole point of using them. But when it’s not, the gender-neutral adjective parental can be used in their place, such as in phrases like parental instincts, parental leave, and parental figure.

Why do babies around the world say "mama"?

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