Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I read a presentation note today mentioning that "space is divided equitably between each cell nucleus".

Would it make any difference if it was "equally" instead of "equitably"? Or are the two identical in usage?

share|improve this question
It seems to me that the right word for your purposes might be neither equally nor equitably, but equably. Merriam-Webster's defines equable as "1 : marked by lack of variation or change : uniform <an equable distance apart> 2 : marked by lack of noticeable unpleasant, or extreme variation or inequality <an equable temperament>." –  Sven Yargs Feb 27 '13 at 0:27
add comment

5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

"Equitably" means "fairly" ["with equity" in the sense of fairness] rather than "equally". Often of course the result is the same thing but it is not necessarily so.

In this scientific-sounding context I would venture to suggest that "equally" is probably what the presenter meant and "equitably" is a bit vague with just a hint of ambiguity.

share|improve this answer
I agree with this. I'm not sure if one can apply the concept of fairness with respect to cell nuclei. –  Ben Hocking May 16 '11 at 14:23
Ben's right: equitable is the wrong word. Perhaps the author meant evenly ? –  Malvolio May 16 '11 at 17:23
@Malvolio - evenly would be OK, to me that would convey the same sense as equally. –  AAT May 16 '11 at 21:04
mmm, I would think distributing something equally means that the same amount goes everywhere, but evenly suggests that every place ends up with the same amount (which is different if the places started out with different amounts of whatever's being distributed). –  Malvolio May 16 '11 at 23:27
add comment

Equally suggests that the space is divided into portions of the same size, while equitably suggests a fair division. In this case, both words seem to be appropriate.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I'll throw in my two cents. I agree that "equitably" means fairly divided and "equally" means divided into portions of the same size.

But "equitably" does not always mean that the portions are the same size, and I would think usually implies some sort of arbitration, or some authority that would determine what was "fair."

This isn't something that would happen with cell nuclei, unless you consider a divine intervention. I think "equally" is the more appropriate word here.

share|improve this answer
add comment

"Equitable" has more of a legal or moral connotation. An equitable settlement among heirs might be that one gets a house because she needs it while the other gets the vacation home because he wants it. The settlement would not necessarily be equal in monetary value, but it might be considered fair to all parties involved.

Concerning your speaker's case of cell nuclei. I think "equal" would be correct if all the nuclei had the about the same spacing. I think "equitable" would be correct if the cells had, say, differing functions, where those cells with critical functions receive more space for their nuclei.

Although my cell biology understanding is limited, here's an example that might enlighten: eukaryotic cells host a true nucleus, in contrast to a prokaryotic nucleoid. Eukaryotic cells get a lot more space between their nuclei. The spacing between the eukaryotic nuclei are fairly equal in the same organism (meaning the distances are about the same). If the speaker were comparing eukaryotic to eukaryotic, then "equal" might have been the better choice.

But the eukaryotic nuclei get much more space than the prokaryotic nuclei -- because they are much more complex. If the speaker were comparing eukaryotic to prokaryotic, then "equitable" might have been the better choice.

(And my apologies to cell biologists for any misinterpretation of the web page; these errors stem from my lack of domain expertise.)

share|improve this answer
+1 for pointing out a scenario under which equitably would be a better word than equally. –  Ben Hocking May 16 '11 at 18:50
+1 - same reason as Ben! –  AAT May 16 '11 at 21:06
add comment

As an example, say you have a group of 4 people and a group of 2 people, and a cake. If you divide the cake equally between the two groups, everyone understands that each group gets half the cake. If, however, you divide the cake equitably between the two groups, most people would expect that you would give the first group 2/3 of the cake and the second group 1/3.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.