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Is there a measurable difference in meaning between the phrases "to a degree" and "to an extent" (or "to some degree" and "to some extent")?

Examples:

  • To [some degree / some extent] that is a better solution.
  • To [a degree / an extent], she is correct.

Just a matter of a style, or are there different connotations?

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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'd say: simply style, when not in a geometrical context. Similarity or difference is being metaphorically expressed as distance, whether angular or linear.

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A minor point: I am not sure degree necessarily refers to angular degree, as the word is used in many other contexts unrelated to goniometry. It basically just means a step, from Latin gradus step, both as in taking a step forward and as with the steps of a flight of stairs. –  Cerberus Mar 13 '11 at 4:28
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@Cerberus: I sit corrected! :^) –  jcomeau_ictx Mar 13 '11 at 4:29
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Extent means "the amount to which something is or is believed to be the case," and to a degree means "to some extent."

There is no difference between the phrases, except (maybe) the position they take in a sentence.

Everyone will have to compromise to some extent.
They altered the document to such an extent that it contained little in the way of new policy.
To a degree, it is possible to educate oneself.

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Here's how I've heard the difference explained: You have a glass of water with a drop of poison. If you drink any of the water, you will die. The degree of poison in the cup is only 1, yet the extent of the poison is 100%.

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