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Can anybody explain the difference between computing and computation? Which one is correct:

  • computing/computation node (to refer to a server)
  • computing/computation power (to refer to the FLOPS of a machine)
  • computing/computation to communication ratio

The Internet seems to favour computing for the first two and computation for the latter:

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What kind of difference(s) do you want to know about? Semantic, syntactic, morphological, etymologies, usage? –  Rachel Aug 23 '12 at 12:03
    
@Rachel I just want to know how to properly use them and why. Why would it be wrong (or weird) to use the other word? –  user1202136 Aug 23 '12 at 12:31
    
You forgot about simply calling it a compute node, which is in common parlance. –  tchrist Aug 23 '12 at 13:49
    
"The Internet seems to favour computing for the first two and computation for the latter." You are right. @Zairja throws some more light on why. –  Kris Aug 23 '12 at 14:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think that the words are very similar, especially as adjectives. But one significant difference that I perceive (as a math+linguistics major with interests in AI and computational linguistics, I do have a bit of experience with these terms) involves their derivation. I analyze computing as deriving from the verb compute, and so it inherits a notion of action or event. In contrast, computation I do not associate with actions or events; a computation can be an entirely static, abstract object. I would not say, e.g.,

1) Mathematicians in computability theory study computing.

but would say instead

2) Mathematicians in computability theory study computation.

The difference is that computing is what something does and has a more real-world feel compared to computation, which has a more theoretical feel. I think computing is also more ambiguous due to vaguer meanings relating to things that people and machines do.

If you check, computing machine and computation cost win, as I expected, but some of the others surprised me (e.g., computing capacity). I think it's sometimes a matter of a particular technical phrase becoming fixed in a field, which can happen because of a single seminal paper or such, e.g., computational complexity, for which at least one of the others would work just as well. So I think there is some arbitrariness in the statistics. That is, some of these phrases might not be spontaneously composed by each speaker for each utterance but rather are recalled as a single unit. When a phrase becomes fixed, its meaning and usage patterns can start to diverge from the meanings and usage patterns of its component parts as the language evolves. So this might explain some conceptual discrepancies.

It also occurs to me that computation has more competition from computational than computing does when used as an adjective (since the meanings of the first two are closer), so this might bring down the numbers for computation even when it conceptually fits the context better, as in computational structure, which indeed beats both of the others, with computation structure far last. Computational speed even wins, which surprises me. But I generally hear computational more often than the other two as an adjective.

As for your specific concerns about sounding weird, I wouldn't worry much. None of the options sound completely wrong. As general guidelines to avoid the oddest cases, I suggest using computing when the phrase you're modifying is closely related to a process and using computation(al) when the phrase you're modifying is closely related to a static structure or mathematical concept.

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Thank you for this detailed answer. –  user1202136 Aug 23 '12 at 14:11

If I may offer a concise answer to supplement Rachel's fairly thorough one:

Computing connotes the use (or study) of computers.

Computation connotes calculation (not necessarily by computer, and not necessarily mathematical operations, though this is technically what a computer is doing).

One could say that "she did the computation by hand", which implies mathematical operations. However, "she did the computing by hand" implies the person might be manually working out a piece of computer code to find its output.

This is just an anecdotal answer from a computer scientist, but it may provide a bit more insight into how they're used.

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Yes. Computing is used in the context of automatic processing using computer systems. –  Kris Aug 23 '12 at 14:07

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