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“A discussion of”, “a discussion on”, and “a discussion about”: When is each phrase used in preference to the other?
If context is important, I want to use it as a subheading on a piece of non-fiction.

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Would you like to edit your question to include "A discussion on..." as well? –  n0nChun Mar 16 '11 at 3:54
How best to do that now? I hadn't originally considered that version but if people have useful opinions, I'm interested. –  Simon Mar 16 '11 at 3:59
Just Edit your question i suppose? Or let ReDwight or Robusto do that for you. –  n0nChun Mar 16 '11 at 4:10

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Oh lordy, another "there's a difference, but I can't quite put my finger on it" question. But I'm gonna try anyway. :)

  • A discussion about a topic — this implies that the discussion was just a conversation, really, and it might not have stayed strictly on-topic.

  • A discussion of a topic — this brings to mind a true discussion, going into all sorts of details of the topic (and only the topic).

  • A discussion on a topic — here I picture the discussion to be somewhat one-sided, almost a lecture.

Note that all of these connotations are vague and amorphous, and can be overridden by customary usages, or by what "sounds best" in a given context. If you pressed me to suggest a single best choice, today I'd go with "of". No guarantees about tomorrow.

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This is exactly what I had in mind. Thank you. It is a "can't quite put my finger on it" question, and you have explained the problem well. –  Simon Mar 17 '11 at 1:01
I wanted to add that a non-native speaker may not understand why I accepted this answer. It comes down to vibe and tone, which might have regional and cultural influences. –  Simon Mar 17 '11 at 1:23
FWIW, my husband (reading over my shoulder) says (insists) that "of" is really the only valid choice. He particularly dislikes "on"; he says that goes with "lecture", not "discussion". –  JPmiaou Mar 18 '11 at 2:07
@JPmiaou, tell your husband to get an account and answer the question himself. :D –  Marthaª Mar 18 '11 at 3:20

Discuss means "to talk about". So when you write discuss about, that means you are saying "talk about about". So the preposition about is not required when you use the verb discuss.

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I suppose the answer depends on what your subject is, and what tone you're trying to set.

"Discussion on" can sound serious or pretentious or formal, to me, as in:

A discussion on the subject of probity, wherein we discover an upstanding truth

"Discussion of" could describe the particulars of the event of the discussion (currently happening, perhaps having just happened), even separate from the explicit topic:

A amusing discussion of whistles, plastic and otherwise

Or it can refer directly to the subject at hand, a summary of what you will discuss:

A discussion of monsters, meteors, and meerschaum pipes

"Discussion about" sounds informal. "Here's some stuff we're talking about."

A discussion about some things which happened in the garden that Wednesday

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I don't know if it's just your specific examples giving me that impression... but "a discussion of" sounds to me a bit rétro. –  nico Mar 16 '11 at 20:10
This is a very good answer. Subject and tone are important. Your examples were good. –  Simon Mar 17 '11 at 1:07
@simon thank you.... it was an interesting question. –  jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 7:34

about seems to be more informal, like

Last night, we had a discussion about winemaking in the bar

of is more likely to be used in writing, often in scientific or formal setting:

The discussion of winemaking and its role in local economy will be held in the Conference Room B, ...

on is somewhere in between, but closer to "of".

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I liked "about seems to be more informal". –  Simon Mar 17 '11 at 1:03
This is a great answer IMHO -- almost exactly matches my gut feeling. –  Priidu Neemre Oct 6 at 18:13

I would probably lean toward about as in:

We had a discussion about otters and other salt-water mammals.

Using the preposition of there feels wrong to me. In a subheading on a paper

A Discussion of Otters and Other Salt-Water Mammals

it would feel as if it was the otters who were having the discussion.

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I partly agree, but the theory doesn't really continue to work if it's "A Discussion of the value of Otters in ...", because then it's clear that the otters were not doing the discussing. I'll have to think about this answer. –  Simon Mar 16 '11 at 3:47
@Simon, in that case, i'd rather go with "A discussion on the value of Otters.." –  n0nChun Mar 16 '11 at 3:52

A discussion of

can refer to the people discussing or what they're discussing.

A discussion about

is less ambiguous. Here, the writer clearly means the object of the discussion (that which is being talked about).

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what about "a discussion on"? looks like the same as "a discussion about" to me.. –  Tom Brito Mar 16 '11 at 20:02
This answer doesn't get to the heart of the problem. –  Simon Mar 17 '11 at 0:48

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