Mandatory, Compulsory and Obligatory

08 September 2023

Hi there! This week on Ask a Teacher, we will answer a question about the difference between "mandatory," "compulsory," and "obligatory."


Hello. My name is Nelson, and I'm from Nicaragua.
Can you help me to understand the difference between "compulsory," "mandatory" and "obligatory?"
Thank you in advance,

Mandatory, Compulsory, and Obligatory
Mandatory, Compulsory, and Obligatory



This is a great question, Nelson. These three adjectives have the same meaning, so they are synonyms. They share a basic definition of "required." But there are some slight differences in how often we use each. Let's start with the most common, "mandatory."


Mandatory comes from the word "mandate," which means to give authority to act or as a noun means an official order. Something that is "mandatory" is the result of that action or order. It usually comes from a law or rule.

This is the most common of the three words in question because it is often used in everyday conversations. We use it to describe something that is required by a mandate, law, or rule.

In most public high schools, there is mandatory testing every year.

Seatbelts are mandatory in the U.S. If you do not wear a seatbelt, you are breaking the law.


"Compulsory" is the second most common adjective out of the three, so it is used less often than "mandatory. It also means required by law. We often use it to describe education and military service.

Many countries in the world have compulsory military service like Ukraine, South Korea, and Egypt.

Massachusetts became the first place in the United States to have compulsory schooling for children in the year 1642.


The least common adjective is "obligatory," but it is the most formal of the three. It means the same as "mandatory" and "compulsory," but also has other meanings.

We use "obligatory" not just for laws or rules, but we use it to describe obligations that are based on moral or social instances.

Social media is now the obligatory way to message friends because young people do not like to talk on the phone.

Another way we use obligatory is when we are talking about something that people have stereotypically used but is not really needed.

Many movies for young people feature obligatory dance scenes at the end of the film.

The obligatory two-week notice before you quit your job is common in the U.S. but not required by law.

Please let us know if these explanations and examples have helped you, Nelson.

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And that's Ask a Teacher.

I'm Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

authority n. a leadership figure or government

obligation – n. something that you must do because it is morally right