“Maintain” vs. “Sustain” vs. “Retain” – Difference Explained

With the vast nature of the English language, not only do some words sound the same, but sometimes, they have overlapping meanings too, making it more confusing to know which is most appropriate to use. Like, ‘maintain,’ ‘sustain,’ and ‘retain,’ which should we use when? Let’s see.

What Is The Difference Between ‘Maintain,’ ‘Sustain,’ And ‘Retain?’

‘Maintain’ means more to preserve the quality of something, which also often means ‘taking care of something.’ ‘Sustain’ also means holding something at a certain level, but with more emphasis on keeping it there for a long time. ‘Retain,’ on the other hand, means to ‘keep something as is.’

Maintain vs. Sustain vs. Retain

Among the three, ‘maintain’ and ‘sustain’ have more similar meanings since both words express keeping something at a certain level as ‘retain’ only means to keep something as is, regardless of level or quality. Here is how we can further differentiate ‘maintain’ and ‘sustain.’ ‘Maintain’ or ‘maintenance’ leans toward being more periodic or occasional. ‘Sustain,’ on the other hand, leans toward being more of a continuous effort.

What Does ‘Maintain’ Mean?

‘Maintain’ means preserving the quality of something or taking care of something so that it won’t reduce in quality or level. It could mean keeping systems or things working and functioning to maximize the quality of something. It is usually related to ‘maintenance’ which means regular fixing or check-ups.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘maintain’ means:

  • to continue to have; to keep in existence, or not allow to become less, or
  • to keep a road, machine, building, etc. in good condition.

Below are examples of how to use ‘maintain’ in a sentence.

  1. Leaders are elected to maintain peace and order in a nation.
  2. Despite not meeting my friend for five whole years, I maintained a steady relationship with her.
  3. There are standards we need to maintain for our company to have a good reputation.
  4. I couldn’t maintain my poker face, and I burst into laughter the moment I saw you.
  5. The current local government poorly maintained national roads and expressways.
  6. We maintain our equipment and do monthly fixtures to ensure the quality of our product.
  7. The newly released song maintained its position on the charts as top 1 for three consecutive weeks.

What Does ‘Sustain’ Mean?

‘Sustain’ means holding something at a certain level for a long period. When talking about ‘sustainability,’ it usually means ensuring something remains for a longer period of time. On the other hand, ‘sustain injury’ could also mean getting hurt or suffering from something. While ‘sustain one’s needs’ is related to survival.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘sustain’ means:

  • to cause or allow something to continue for a period of time, or
  • to keep alive, or
  • to suffer or experience, especially damage or loss.

Below are examples of how we use ‘sustain’ in a sentence.

  1. She could not sustain the needs of her family due to poverty.
  2. Try to sustain the last note to make the song more emotional.
  3. Luckily, no one sustained severe injuries during the earthquake.
  4. Good soil can sustain the life even of plants that are hard to grow.
  5. We should find a way to sustain the growth of our company.
  6. Mark sustained an injury from dancing too hard on the stage.
  7. Our resources now are not enough to sustain the life of the human population.

What Does ‘Retain’ Mean?

‘Retain’ means keeping something the way it is as of the moment. Unlike ‘maintain’ or ‘sustain,’ it does not concern satisfying a specific standard or level. Instead, it simply means keeping something the way it is and not making any changes. Sometimes, it means continuing to have or hold something.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘retain’ means:

  • to keep or continue to have something, or
  • if a substance retains something, such as heat or water, it continues to hold or contain it, or
  • to keep or continue to have something, especially a position or money, or control of something.

Below are examples of how we use ‘retain’ in a sentence.

  1. Let’s retain what we have now because it’s hard to make last-minute changes.
  2. Lea managed to retain her focus despite distractions.
  3. He has a good memory and can retain information well.
  4. You retain the right to file a case against the suspect who wronged you.
  5. We should retain our positions for this part of the performance.
  6. Aluminum can absorb and retain heat longer than plastic.
  7. Don’t retain something that didn’t work out before.

Are ‘Maintain,’ ‘Sustain,’ and ‘Retain’ Interchangeable?

‘Maintain,’ ‘sustain,’ and ‘retain’ may be interchangeable but not all the time. The three are only interchangeable when one uses the word for a meaning that overlaps with the other. However, when the definition is unique only to one of the words, we don’t interchange it with the others.

The three words can be interchangeable in situations that need a word that means ‘to continue to have or to keep something.’

Take a look at the example below.

  • Let’s maintain the energy we have now.
  • Let’s retain the energy we have now.
  • Let’s sustain the energy we have now.

All three sentences express that ‘we’ should keep having the energy ‘we’ have right now.

However, we cannot interchange the three words in the following contexts:

  • ‘Maintain’ only
  • preserving the quality of something
  • monthly fixtures or maintenance
  • ‘Sustain’ only
  • keeping something alive
  • emphasizing keeping something over a long period
  • ‘Retain’ only
  • a substance holding or containing something
  • keeping positions or money, or being in control of something

Is ‘Maintain,’ ‘Sustain,’ Or ‘Retain’ Used The Most?

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, ‘maintain’ is used the most among the three words. There is also a big gap between ‘maintain’ and the other two words. It is probably because ‘maintain’ has a more extensive range of applications and usage, especially for technologies and equipment with maintenance.

Maintain vs. Sustain vs. Retain english usage

‘Maintain,’ ‘Sustain,’ And ‘Retain’ Synonyms

Though the three words are synonymous, they also have slight differences. So, rather than finding synonyms that apply to all, below are other words that are synonymous with ‘maintain,’ ‘sustain’ and ‘retain’ individually.

Synonyms for Maintain

  • Preserve
  • Uphold
  • Cultivate
  • Keep
  • Continue

Synonyms for Sustain

  • Preserve
  • Save
  • Continue
  • Keep (it) alive
  • Suffer (sustain an injury)

Synonyms for Retain

  • Hold
  • Keep
  • Cling to
  • Contain
  • Grasp