Sympathy, pity, compassion, commiseration, condolence, ruth, empathy are comparable though often not interchangeable when they mean a feeling for the suffering or distress of another.
Sympathy is the most general term, ranging in meaning from friendly interest or agreement in taste or opinion to emotional identification, often accompanied by deep tenderness.
Pity has the strongest emotional connotation; the emotion may be one of tenderness, love, or respect induced by the magnitude of another’s suffering or of fellowship with the sufferer.
Pity sometimes may suggest a tinge of contempt for one who is inferior whether because of suffering or from inherent weakness; there is also a frequent suggestion that the effect if not the purpose of pity is to keep the object in a weak or inferior state.
Compassion, which originally meant fellowship in suffering between equals, has come to denote imaginative or emotional sharing of the distress or misfortune of another or others who are considered or treated as equals; it implies tenderness and understanding as well as an urgent desire to aid and spare, but while compassion suggests a greater dignity in the object than pity often does, it also implies a greater detachment in the subject.
Commiseration and condolence agree in placing the emphasis on expression of a feeling for another’s affliction, rather than on the feeling itself.
Commiseration denotes a spontaneous and vocal expression, often one made in public or by a crowd.
Condolence denotes a formal expression of sympathy especially for the loss of a relative through death and refers strictly to an observance of etiquette without an implication as to the underlying feeling.
Ruth denotes softening of a stern or indifferent disposition.
Empathy , of all the terms here discussed, has the least emotional content; it describes a gift, often a cultivated gift, for vicarious feeling, but the feeling need not be one of sorrow; thus empathy is often used as a synonym for some senses of sympathy as well as in distinction from sympathy .
Empathy is frequently employed with reference to a nonhuman object (as a literary character or an idea, culture, or work of art).