# precise versus accurate

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

1. ### drei_lenguaSenior 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. ### nmuscatineSenior 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. ### elroyMotley 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 BSenior 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. ### SofiaBSenior 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. ### DaleCSenior 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. ### nmuscatineSenior Member

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

8. ### elroyMotley 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. ### maxiogeeBanned

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. ### panjandrumOccasional 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

11. ### Jay BroMember

Kazakhstan
Russian (Русский)

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"]

12. ### AndygcSenior 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 BroMember

Kazakhstan
Russian (Русский)
[ 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 BroMember

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

15. ### AndygcSenior 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. ### ParlaSenior Member

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

17. ### AndygcSenior 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. ### ParlaSenior 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. ### AndygcSenior Member

Devon
British English
Well, at least we agree on the simpler and, to me, preferable "For an accurate diagnosis, . . . ".

20. ### manfySenior 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)