1. sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy
e.g. This could have a significant effect on the outcome of the election.
2. having a particular meaning; indicative of something
e.g. It is a particularly significant tradition for people of this community.
3. (STATISTICS) relating to or having statistical significance
e.g. Post-test results were not statistically significant.
How often is it used?
The adjective significant occurs twice as often in academic writing as in other discourse types, and more than 2 million times in our database of scientific texts.
Writefull’s Language Search (below) shows that significant is often used in a statistical sense, which explains why it is twice as frequent in scientific and technical disciplines as in the humanities (Corpus of Contemporary American English).
But not all academic uses of significant are to do with statistics (e.g. This was a significant step in the climate change agenda). In certain contexts, the meaning of significant (i.e. statistically or not) can be ambiguous.
Which words go with it?
As many other adjectives, significant typically prefers the company of a small number of nouns. Such neighboring words that often go together are also called collocates. Writefull tells us that collocates of significant are (by decreasing order of preference):
significant difference(s) - 22%
significant trend(s) - 13%
significant value(s) - 9%
significant correlation(s) - 8%
significant level(s) - 5%
significant results - 3%
significant findings - 2%
significant rates - 2%
This again hints that significant is often used when discussing statistics.
Which words can be used instead?
Words such as important, notable, marked, striking, and meaningful are all possible synonyms of significant when paired with the noun differences, as our Language Search shows below.
When comparing the use of significant and important in the context of differences, however, not only is important much less commonly used (6% vs 94%), but it is also not used in a statistical context. This is shown below.
(The same is true with other synonyms in the list).
How to use significant in your academic text?
If you are discussing statistical results, you should use significant to describe correlations and other relationships. If you are not sure which nouns to pair it with, the above list of collocates can help.
If not, you could consider using synonyms such as important or notable for adding variety to your vocabulary. Even better, avoid using significant and remove any possibility of readers misinterpreting your sentence in a statistical sense.
*Definitions from Oxford Languages
About the author
Mélodie is an Applied Linguist at Writefull.