precise versus accurate

Discussion in 'English Only' started by drei_lengua, Mar 10, 2006.

  1. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Hello everyone,
    I was reading something recently and it sparked my memory of my high school physics class in which we learned the difference between the words "precise" and "accurate". However, I do not have the old physics book and would love to re-learn this nuance.

    Does anyone know the answer to this? As always, please give some examples.

    I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thanks,
    drei
     
  2. nmuscatine Senior Member

    California
    English, USA
    Let us take the example of a scale (for weighing things). If the scale is "precise," then it can measure weight down to very small units, such as 2.00001 pounds. An "imprecise" scale might say that the same object weighs 2 pounds. As for accuracy, if the scale is "accurate," then it actually gives you the correct weight for the object. An "inaccurate" scale might tell you that a 2-pound object weighs 3 pounds.

    Notice that it is possible for the scale to be precise but innacurate: i.e. it tells you that a 2-pound object weighs 4.00932 pounds.
     
  3. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I disagree - such a highly inaccurate scale is quite decidedly imprecise!

    I think a precise scale is by definition accurate.
     
  4. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    I agree with nmuscatine, sort of.
    The explanation here is pretty good: http://users.wpi.edu/~nab/sci_eng/99_Jun_14.html

    Accurate means that multiple measurements will be centered around the "real" value, but they might vary wildly.

    Precise means that multiple measurements will be very close to each other, but they might not be centered around the "real" value.
     
  5. SofiaB Senior Member

    English Asia
    precise is a detailed mesurement and accuate is most exact. In the best case they are the same but not always.
     
  6. DaleC Senior Member

    That's totally mistaken. There are oodles of Web pages that explain the two terms. Here's one (just one of oodles, I'm sure) that uses the by now classic pictorial explanation of the four targets.
     
  7. nmuscatine Senior Member

    California
    English, USA
    Thanks... the links make sense. I guess that my first explanation was not quite accurate.
     
  8. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I think there's a difference between the scientific and the colloquial uses of the terms. In everyday speech, I would not call a scale that told me my 2-pound object weighed over 4 pounds precise, if for no other reason but to avoid misunderstanding.
     
  9. maxiogee Banned

    imithe
    "Monarch" is an accurate translation into English of the French word "Roi", but "King" is the precise meaning.

    Strange how in a language forum there should be so much discussion of weights when talking about accuracy and precision.
     
  10. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    As DaleC's link makes clear, these terms are used in the science of measurement with additional meaning beyond what normally appears in dictionaries.

    My dictionary is one of those that fails to make the distinction and in fact it gives precise as part of the definition of accurate. To most people, in most circumstances, the distinction between them is vanishingly small - although I don't have either an accurate or a precise measure of it.

    On that basis, I think that to describe Elroy's post as "totally mistaken" is an overstatement.
    Put another way, in the light of the information to hand, it may be a precise description, but it is not accurate:D
     
  11. Jay Bro

    Jay Bro Member

    Kazakhstan
    Russian (Русский)
    And what's about the diagnosis?

    should I use Precise or Accurate?

    Like here:
    [ in order to make a precise diagnosis, patients are referred to this center - or it would be better to say "to be precisely diagnosed, patients are referred to this center"]

    Tremendous thanks in advance!
     
  12. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    Devon
    British English
    "Precise" is an inappropriate word to use with "diagnosis" A correct diagnosis is an accurate diagnosis. Although "accurate" and "precise" are near synonyms outside their scientific use, they are not absolute synonyms, and this is a context where "precise" is a poor choice. (In my medical opinion)

    Fortunately, the Google Books corpus agrees with me. :)
     
  13. Jay Bro

    Jay Bro Member

    Kazakhstan
    Russian (Русский)
    And what's about?
    [ in order to make a precise diagnosis, patients are referred to this center - or it would be better to say "to be precisely diagnosed, patients are referred to this center"]
     
  14. Jay Bro

    Jay Bro Member

    Kazakhstan
    Russian (Русский)
    sory, it failed to correct "Precise" on "Accurate"
     
  15. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    Devon
    British English
    Of the two "in order to make an accurate diagnosis, patients are referred to this center" is perhaps the better, but "in order" is unnecessary. That inverted structure isn't a good way of phrasing it; how you phrase it depends on what is the most important point. A simpler sentence would be "Patients are referred to this centre for an accurate diagnosis." English is best kept simple when the intention is communication rather than literary effect.

    "In order to" fits in if context leads to it. "An initial diagnosis is made in a local clinic. In order to make an accurate diagnosis patients are referred on to the central specialist clinic." However, even there I'd use "For an accurate diagnosis ....".
     
  16. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    Patients don't "make" a diagnosis. I'd say, "In order to receive an accurate diagnosis, . . . ".
     
  17. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    Devon
    British English
    Nobody said they did, Parla. Whoever is making the diagnosis makes the diagnosis. The sentence is not in a context-free environment, and it is extremely picky (and inaccurate) to suggest that "patients" must be the subject of "to make".
     
  18. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    Over here, Andy, "In order to make an accurate diagnosis, patients must . . . " wouldn't be acceptable. An editor would change it to EITHER "In order to receive an accurate diagnosis, . . ." OR "For an accurate diagnosis, . . . ".
     
  19. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    Devon
    British English
    Well, at least we agree on the simpler and, to me, preferable "For an accurate diagnosis, . . . ". :)
     
  20. manfy Senior Member

    Singapore
    German - Austria
    Could it be that you're thinking of the adjective detailed or thorough?

    Normally 'diagnosis' refers only to the conclusions drawn from symptoms or from results of several tests, but sometimes it is used in a way that includes those diagnostic measures that lead to the final diagnosis.
    To avoid such ambiguity, you might say "For detailed testing and a more accurate diagnosis,..." (or "...a more conclusive diagnosis, ..." might sound better here)
     

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