Ditch and trench

sdgraham

Senior Member
USA English
The following post from a BE speaker in the Spanish-English forum mystified me:

A trench is usually man-made or constructed by machine, a ditch is natural.
Another BE speaker agreed.

I replied that we have ditches along roads, irrigation ditches, drainage ditches, etc. in the U.S. All, of course, are man-made.

Are these called something different in the U.K.?

(I also noted that the Mariana Trench is not man-made)

A seach of this forum and the WRD did not resolve my confusion.
 
  • JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    As you noted a trench could be a natural phenomenon and most (but not necessarily all) ditches are man-made, so I don't agree with the origin resulting in the difference in meaning. Without any research into the matter, I can tell you my experience/usage suggests that ditches are usually not steep-sided linear holes in the ground where trenches are. In other words the walls of a ditch don't often get much above 45 degrees, while trenches are usually close to 90 degrees. I've not noted any AmE/BrE difference in usage.

    Exceptions to this geometry-based distinction might be in small versions - as in a planting "trench" in a garden plot where seeds or potatoes would be planted. They are too small to be called ditches, but are shallow and not steep sided.
     

    Franzi

    Senior Member
    (San Francisco) English
    Both words pop up as jargon in a number of fields where they have all kinds of specific distinctions including one being a subset of the other (not always in the same direction). Perhaps that's why people are disagreeing.
     

    Aardvark01

    Senior Member
    British English (Midlands)
    A ditch is usually maintained by people even when not man made. Their sole purpose is drainage of surface water:

    ...In winter when the sky is grey
    We hedge and we ditch our time away

    My father's a hedger and ditcher
    My mother does nothing but spin...

    This is or was the custom of winter, to prune and lay the hedges and clear the ditches of weeds.

    A trench is deeper and can be made for purposes other than drainage, particularly warfare. In the English transcription of Homer's Illiad, horses are described bound to charriots near to 'the trench and mound' - clearly describing a moat and bailey.
     

    Basil Ganglia

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    In the US ditches most certainly can be man-made. Ditch-digging is a type of manual labor. Also a "Ditch-witch" is a machine commonly used construct a narrow, vertical-sided excavation of about 1.0 to 1.5 meters depth into which pipe or conduit is placed.

    As a civil engineer with some experience in hydraulics and drainage, I generally consider all ditches and trenches to be manmade. If it's a natural drainage feature I identify it as a streambed (even if flow is intermittent), a swale, a channel, or a course.
     
    Last edited:

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    In the UK, ditches can certainly be man-made too:)

    I like the distinctions between "trench" and "ditch" drawn by JulianStuart and Aardvark01.
     

    Basil Ganglia

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Comments from my experience as a US civil engineer with experience in water supply and distribution ....


    As you noted a trench could be a natural phenomenon and most (but not necessarily all) ditches are man-made, so I don't agree with the origin resulting in the difference in meaning. Without any research into the matter, I can tell you my experience/usage suggests that ditches are usually not steep-sided linear holes in the ground where trenches are. In other words the walls of a ditch don't often get much above 45 degrees, while trenches are usually close to 90 degrees. I've not noted any AmE/BrE difference in usage.

    Exceptions to this geometry-based distinction might be in small versions - as in a planting "trench" in a garden plot where seeds or potatoes would be planted. They are too small to be called ditches, but are shallow and not steep sided.
    As noted in one of my comments above, ditches constructed for utility installation often have vertical walls. These ditches are temporary constructions and are invariably backfilled after the utilities are installed.

    Other ditches are left open after construction. This will almost always be for drainage purposes. If this is the case, the sides will usually be sloped to provide stability. I have seen many situations in which someone constructed a steep-sided "drainage ditch" and left the sides unsloped. Of course, if the ditch was constructed in soft soils, the sides of the ditch soon begin sloughing into the ditch. But if the ditch was constructed in rock or other firm material the ditch will remain functional for many years. I have seen many steep sided, unlined irrigation ditches in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that are more than 50 years old and still working well.

    A "trench" is a long excavation or cut in the ground. Trenches most often use steep walls, but steep walls are not strictly necessary. For example, if a levee were in danger of failing during a flood, a trench could be cut through the walls of the levee to relieve the pressure. This trench would always have sloped walls.

    Most often a trench is a construction method; a trench usually isn't constructed for the purpose of creating a trench, but as a means to construct something else. A pipeline (or a subway line) can be placed or constructed at the bottom of a trench, after which the trench is backfilled. A trench can be constructed around a waste disposal site and then be filled with grout or impermeable material to become a cutoff wall. If the walls are lined and properly supported, a trench can become a "ditch"; many irrigation ditches or canals were constructed using "trenching" technology.

    A ditch is usually maintained by people even when not man made. Their sole purpose is drainage of surface water:
    A trench is deeper and can be made for purposes other than drainage, particularly warfare. In the English transcription of Homer's Illiad, horses are described bound to charriots near to 'the trench and mound' - clearly describing a moat and bailey.
    I agree that ditches that remain open after construction are used for water conveyance, but not exclusively for drainage. Irrigation ditches and drainage ditches are both quite common in the western United States.

    I've been trying to think of contexts other than trench warfare in which a trench is created and maintained as a "trench". I can't think of others, though I suspect there are other examples.
     
    Last edited:
    According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Ditch comes from the OE /dician/, which means "to dig" as well as "to make an embankment".

    "Hedging and ditching" refers to the ancient practice of marking the boundary of one's land and draining it by digging a ditch around the extremity and throwing the dug earth or spoils onto the side of the ditch that lay within the boundary. It was originally that earth mound, parallel to the ditch, that was called the hedge. In time, foliage would grow on the hedge and eventually "hedge" came to be used for the foliage itself, resulting in the modern use of the word. The land was then drained by channels cut across the hedge, into the ditch.

    Generally in England, there is a legal presumption that the boundary of a piece of land lies on the far side of the ditch from the hedge. There is an exception in the Ashdown Forest, where local tradition has the boundary running along the middle of the ditch.

    Drive along many an English country road and you will see mile after mile of ditches, lying a little way back from the carriageway and immediately in front of the hedge that forms the boundary of a farmer's land. Look closely at the base of the hedge and you will see that it is raised - that "hump" is the original hedge; the earth dug out of the ditch.

    The same dictionary reports "trench" as coming from the OF /trenche/, meaning a track cut through a forest. The original root is the Latin /truncare/, meaning to shorten something by cutting it off. Apparently the meaning itself was truncated to mean, simply, cutting.

    In England, builders talk of digging trenches for foundations and for laying buried conduits.
     
    Last edited:

    Aardvark01

    Senior Member
    British English (Midlands)
    Trenches can be naturally occurring as well as man made:
    The Marianas Trench in the Pacific is the deepest point of the world's oceans.
    The Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic.
    The Missouri River Trench is the broad valley formed by the river.
    The Tintina Trench in The Yukon, Canada.
     

    Basil Ganglia

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Trenches can be naturally occurring as well as man made:
    The Marianas Trench in the Pacific is the deepest point of the world's oceans.
    The Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic.
    The Missouri River Trench is the broad valley formed by the river.
    The Tintina Trench in The Yukon, Canada.
    Absolutely. I was referring to trenches as man-made features.

    An example of a trench operating as a "trench" is a cut created in the floor of a factory either to convey wastewater or to provide space in which to route utility services. This will be referred to as a "trench" (or a "drain" if it is for wastewater), but never as a "ditch".
     
    Last edited:

    Aardvark01

    Senior Member
    British English (Midlands)
    Your quote is attributed to JulianStuart but containing my post. Strange.

    I get the impression that the natural features called trenches are relatively recently named, primarily since the discovery of plate tectonics.
     

    Basil Ganglia

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Your quote is attributed to JulianStuart but containing my post. Strange.
    My mistake. When I quoted your post, there were three other nested quotes inside of it, none of which appeared on the page. When I edited the code I must have deleted the reference to you and retained JulianStuart's. I'll go back and lcean that up.
    I get the impression that the natural features called trenches are relatively recently named, primarily since the discovery of plate tectonics.
    I don't recall when the oceanic trenches were first named as trenches. They've had that name at least since the 1960's when I was in school. I suspect that they may have acquired that name when ocean floor mapping became available, which would have been prior to plate tectonics.

    There's also the Rocky Mountain trench in Canada; that feature is visible without ocean floor mapping. I don't know when that feature was named a "trench".
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top