Sign up ×
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.

A graph, a chart, and a plot can all refer to the same thing. Is there any even somewhat consistent distinction in these three words?

(I mean, in this particular sense of the words; it is not relevant that a chart is also a nautical map, and a plot is also a scheme.)

share|improve this question
If you're happy to say they can all refer to the same thing, surely it doesn't make sense to ask us to tell you why you're mistaken. You presumably learnt to accept these words as potential synonyms by noticing how they are used, so it should be obvious there can't possibly be a reliable distinction. If there is a potential distinction, people ignore it anyway, so it wouldn't be reliable. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 12:35
@FumbleFingers that takes the prize for "Most Barely Comprehensible Rant". Thus far. – JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 13:05
Notwithstanding my comment above, I didn't vote to close. It's true each term can be looked up individually, but dictionaries are not usually good at explaining the subtleties of distinction between overlapping meanings such as this. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 13:12
@Jeff: It wasn't intended as a rant. I think the question is perfectly okay apart from the fact that OP asks for a reliable distinction. Clearly this is a case where there is overlap, as Guffa's excellent answer points out. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 13:14
@FumbleFingers Nor was my comment intended seriously. I was amused by you comment, that's all. All he had to do was drop the word "reliable" to avoid that particular pitfall. I have learned to be very careful in word choice and phrasing on anything I post here. I am not voting to close, either, by the way. – JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 13:21

4 Answers 4

The terms partly overlap, at least if they are used somewhat loosely, and in that overlap there isn't really any difference.

A graph is a diagram of a mathematical function, but can also be used (loosely) about a diagram of statistical data.

A chart is a graphic representation of data, where a line chart is one form.

A plot is the result of plotting statistics as a diagram in different ways, where some of the ways are similar to some chart types.

So, a line chart could be called a graph or a plot, while a pie chart is neither a graph nor a plot. A scatterplot is a chart but not (strictly) a graph, but the purpose of a scatterplot is to determine if there is some relation that can be expressed as a function that then naturally can be drawn as a graph.

share|improve this answer
Perhaps some enterprising soul here on EL&U might care to make a Venn diagram of these three words, with each word represented by a circle with diameter proportional to its relative frequency of use in the context of diagrams. It might be interesting to debate where the circles overlap, and what kind of diagrams fall into each overlapping area. Specifically, the position of that chart itself! :) – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 13:08
"Pie graph" is a common term in AusEng at least. Google confirms lots of results... – curiousdannii Sep 7 at 13:29
@curiousdannii: You can call a pie chart a pie graph, but it's still not a graph, it's a chart. – Guffa Sep 7 at 13:43
@Guffa Who says? Words mean what people mean by using them. Maybe in the past they were more distinct, and maybe in some varieties of English they still are, but in AusEng now they're essentially synonymous. – curiousdannii Sep 7 at 13:53
@curiousdannii: Using a word in an expression doesn't change the meaning of the word itself. Using pie graph doesn't change then meaning of graph, just like using horse shoe doesn't change the meaning of shoe. – Guffa Sep 7 at 14:02

Chart and graph are essentially synonymous, but there are some cases where one is preferred over another. This Google Ngram "chart" shows their relative uses:

An Ngram chart showing the relative occurrences of pie chart,pie graph,bar chart,bar graph,line chart,line graph

From this we can see that "bar chart" and "bar graph" are used about as much as each other (and have been since the early twentieth century). "Line graph" is strongly preferred over "line chart", and "pie chart" is strongly preferred over "pie graph" (though in my own AusEng I think "pie graph" feels more natural.)

Plots are different. We make plots out of points, and for something to be a plot, both axes must be continuous. For example, you can make a plot of the height vs. weight of a population, but not the height vs. species, because species are discrete; you can't plot a point halfway between a cow and a chicken. So I'd say that plots are a subset of charts/graphs.

A scatter plot of height vs. weight

share|improve this answer
Thanks! While I find your answer plausible, would you happen to have any sources for the claim that “plot” is about points in particular? – Kevin Reid Sep 7 at 14:35
@Kevin, no just native speaker intuition. I might be able to find something tomorrow. – curiousdannii Sep 7 at 14:38

Here's a quote from a book called "Basic Allied Health Statistics and Analysis"

A chart illustrates data using only one quantitative coordinate. Charts are most appropriate for quantitatively comparing discrete categories or groups of data. The most common charts are column, bar, line and pie charts. [...] A bar chart is particularly useful for displaying data such as gender, ethnicity, occupation, types of discharges, and treatment categories. Bar charts are appropriate for displaying categorical data. Bar charts compare categories or groups using some quantitative measurement.

A graph is a method of relating one qualitative [I think this a mistake, and it's meant to say 'quantitative'...] variable to another quantitative variable, usually time. The most common graphs are histograms and frequency polygons. [...] Quantitative continuous data are displayed via a graph. The two most commonly employed graphs are the histogram and the frequency polygon.

So it seems charts are for when there's one qualitative variable (such as type, preference, or gender) and one quantitative variable (such as time, age or amount). These include pie charts and bar charts. Whereas graphs are for when you have two quantitative variables.

share|improve this answer

A plot would apply to line charts, with plotted points. A chart could arrange the data in columns, rows, pie shapes, etc., and plots. Graphs are synonymous with charts, though i would reserve "chart" for more plain depictions and call data arranged in columns of kittens "graphs" (though that's just my style choice).

share|improve this answer
I'm intrigued. What are columns of kittens? – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 12:56
@FumbleFingers my guess is that it would be something you would find at – JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 13:03
@Jeff: I did a search for "kittens" there, but it didn't have any. Are you thinking of those spam emails that say "Send me money, or I'll drown a kitten?". Which presumably could have an attached chart showing how many kittens the spammer has drowned recently because people failed to cough up. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '11 at 13:19
@FumbleFingers No, I was just guessing about that site. But a quick google search did turn up this gem: – JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 13:26

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.