What is the Difference Between Approval and Sanction

The main difference between approval and sanction is that approval is used in general contexts while sanction is used more in official, formal and legal contexts. Moreover, approval has one meaning while sanction has two opposite meaning on its own.

Approval and sanction are two words that confuse most of us due to their similar meanings. Moreover, they both mean giving permission/consent or agreeing on something. However, based on their usage, one can draw a distinction between these two words.

Key Areas Covered

1. What Does Approval Mean
     – Definition, Emphasis, Usage
2. What Does Sanction Mean
     – Definition, Emphasis, Usage
3. What are the Similarities Between Approval and Sanction
     – Outline of Common Features
4. What is the Difference Between Approval and Sanction
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

 Approval, Law, Rules, Sanction

Difference Between Approval and Sanction - Comparison Summary

What Does Approval Mean

Approval is the noun of the verb to approve. Approval means to agree to something or give consent to something. Hence it suggests of a “the state or condition of having a good opinion of someone or something” and “an act of officially accepting or allowing something” (Cambridge Dictionary).

Difference Between Approval and Sanction_Figure 1

Thus, approval is a form of formal agreement concerning something or someone. Therefore, this word is mostly used in the daily usage to describe the agreement to something or someone.

Some examples where the word approval is used are as follows:

  • The principal gave approval to the project of the science club students.
  • This is the document that confirms the authority’s approval.
  • We finally got the approval for the annual trip to Greece
  • It’s better to get the officials approval first before signing up for the new business.
  • The bank approved the housing loan for the couple.

Main Difference - Approval vs Sanction_Figure 2

Approval is more common and used daily, while sanctions are used in a more formal context.

What Does Sanction Mean

Sanction is a noun that has two meanings, which nearly mean the opposite of each other. Accordingly, the two meanings of sanction are:

-to formally give permission or order for something and

– a strong action taken in order to make people obey a law or rule, or a punishment given when they do not obey (Cambridge Dictionary)

Hence, a sanction can either mean a formal decree or the imposing of a sanction or penalty upon something. Therefore, grammatically, sanction belongs to the set of Janus words (meaning words bearing two opposite meanings on their own).

The word sanction has a legal origin; it was first used during the 15th century in English originally referring to a formal decree, especially an ecclesiastical decree. By the 20th century, its meaning extended further to refer to both a means of enforcing a law (followed up with punishment) and the process of formally approving or ratifying a law.

Hence, sanction has a more legal origin as well as a usage in comparison to approval. Therefore, this word is used mainly in the formal and legal contexts according to the meaning it needs to convey.

Difference Between Approval and Sanction_Figure 3

In brief, the noun sanction can be a formal agreement or an imposing of a punishment.

Some examples where the word sanction is used are as follows:

(to give official approval)

  • The authorities’ sanction was obtained by the new governor.
  • The sanction of the provincial council is essential for the proceedings

(to impose punishment upon)

  • Their policy imposed many economic sanctions on other
  • The two lawbreakers were sanctioned by fines according to the verdict.
  • He was sanctioned by the local police station for vandalism.

Thus, sanction is used mostly in legal and official contexts since it bears a legal origin, unlike approval.

Similarities Between Approval and Sanction

  • They describe agreeing to something, giving consent to or allowing something.
  • Both are nouns.

Difference Between Approval and Sanction


Approval refers to the act of approving or giving consent to something. On the other hand, sanction refers either to formally give permission to something or to impose/authorize punishment. Thus, this is the main difference between approval and sanction.


Approval emphasizes on giving consent to something, which emphasizes the idea of having a good opinion of someone or something. But, sanction, which has two opposite meanings, can emphasis two facts. The meaning to give official approval emphasizes the fact that there is effective and authoritative approval or consent to something; therefore it is valid or binding usually by a formal procedure. On the contrary, when sanction means to impose punishment, it emphasizes that citizens should abide by the law as they have an obligation for the command of the authorities and if they violate it they are to face the penalties. Hence, this is another difference between approval and sanction.

Grammar Category

Besides, a grammatical difference between approval and sanction is that approval is a noun while sanction is also a noun belonging to the set of Janus words.


Moreover, the term approval is used in the general context whereas the term sanction is used in the legal and formal context. Hence, sanction signifies some executive or authoritative power imposing that particular condition on others. So, this is a major difference between approval and sanction.


Sanction and approval share similar meaning; therefore, these are most often used synonymously. However, there is a distinct difference between approval and sanction based on their usage. While approval can only mean to give formal consent to or agree to something, sanction has two entirely opposite meanings: to give official approval/ consent to something or to impose punishment upon something. Thus, approval is used mainly in general contexts while sanction is used in the legal and official contexts. Thus, this is the difference between approval and sanction.


1. “Sanction – Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com, Available here.
2. “Approval – Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Stamp of Approval: Assembled in the USA” By NDB Photos (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
2. “Approval Process” By Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Picpedia.org
3. “Israel – Boycott, divest, sanction” By Takver – originally posted to Flickr as Israel – Boycott, divest, sanction (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Upen

Upen, BA (Honours) in Languages and Linguistics, has academic experiences and knowledge on international relations and politics. Her academic interests are English language, European and Oriental Languages, Internal Affairs and International Politics, and Psychology.

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