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What's the difference between "act" and "action"? More specifically in the way they are generally used (and not more specific theatrical definitions, for instance)?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This is actually a question to study with a dictionary.

Act is defined by Dictionary.com as:

1. anything done, being done, or to be done; deed; performance: a heroic act.
2. the process of doing: caught in the act.
8. false show; pretense; feint: The politician's pious remarks were all an act.

(Note that I removed the legal, theatrical, and philosophical definitions in the above.)

Action is defined as:

1. the process or state of acting or of being active: The machine is not in action now.
2. something done or performed; act; deed.
3. an act that one consciously wills and that may be characterized by physical or mental activity: a crisis that demands action instead of debate; hoping for constructive action by the landlord.
4. actions, habitual or usual acts; conduct: He is responsible for his actions.
5. energetic activity: a man of action.
6. an exertion of power or force: the action of wind upon a ship's sails.
7. effect or influence: the action of morphine.
9. way or manner of moving: the action of a machine or of a horse.
10. the mechanism by which something is operated, as that of a gun or a piano.
11. a military encounter or engagement; battle, skirmish, or the like.
12. actual engagement in fighting an enemy; military or naval combat: He saw action in Vietnam.

(Here I removed the physiological, literature-related, theatrical, fine arts-related, legal, slang, and ecclesiastical definitions.) I know this is a lot to take in, but once you peruse the two entries, you get a pretty good idea of the usage differences as well as the meaning differences.

I'd suggest that a difference between definition 2 of action and the definition of act is that actions are almost always fundamental acts (e.g. moving your arm), while acts can be larger, and made up of many smaller actions (e.g. robbing a bank). There is, of course, a lot of grey area in between the definitions where they overlap, so that's not comprehensive. Sometimes either works just as well as the other.

Other than definition 2 (and possibly 3) of action, act and action seem pretty well defined relative to one another.

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+1. Acts tend to be bigger, grander, more long-term. Actions are generally discrete and smaller in scale. –  onomatomaniak Oct 17 '11 at 7:01

I had said in the unedited version of this post that one of the main differences was that act tends to describe abstract events and that action tends to describe concrete ones. I’ll modify that and say that action perhaps describes a more dynamic event than act. We might speak of an act of folly, but rarely of an action of folly. On the other hand, we might say the action of the piston causes the rotor to turn, but never, surely, the act of the piston causes the rotor to turn. Structurally, action can be uncountable, as in The government must take immediate action. Act never can. We might conceivably speak of An action such as that can never be forgiven, but never *Act such as that can never be forgiven.

As I said earlier, it's a big question to answer fully in a few lines, and without further research. Others, presumably, think the same, given the absence any other answer.

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Give us a couple more lines then. I at least have no idea what you mean by abstract acts as opposed to concrete actions, or why you wouldn't have concrete acts and abstract actions. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 20:59

Those definitions Daniel posted are correct. I looked up Merriam-Webster dictionary.

However, my conclusion is totally different.

  1. Action is more abstract than act. Act is something specific that is/being/to be done so acts are specific. Action is usually related to effect, will, engagement, or manner so actions are more abstract. Therefore, sometimes act is more about oneself while action could relate to others. We could also say actions speak louder than words but never acts speak louder than words. Also, action could be as an uncountable noun but acts never.

  2. An action could be made up of acts. Actions are usually more complex, lasting. We can say the action of a machine but we can never say an act of a machine. This is because the action of a machine is usually not simple.

There are surely many cases we can use either act or action.

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