English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

When comparing the total surface area of (geometrical) bodies, can I describe it as "large surface" (or "largest") or, as an editor suggested, do I have to use "broad surface"?


Example sentence from the article: "Porous, spongy grains provide a large surface for chemical reactions but might hinder the release of the newly formed species into the gas phase."

Another example:

"Additionally, the significantly larger dust surface in the XX and YY model lead to ..."

here XX and YY denote dust models with differen dust size distributions and accordingly with different total surface area of the grains.

The editor suggested to replace large by broad.

share|improve this question

closed as not a real question by MετάEd, JSBձոգչ, Zairja, StoneyB, Robusto Oct 31 '12 at 12:15

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

It's impossible to give a correct answer without seeing the actual sentence and the context that leads up to it. Without the text either (or neither) might be appropriate. – MετάEd Oct 30 '12 at 12:46
Broad is not a measure of area, but a description of shape, so I think your editor is confused. – Roaring Fish Oct 30 '12 at 12:47
Please give the sentence of paragraph of context. Also, this may be a matter of technical language which might be better answered over at mathematics.SE. – Mitch Oct 30 '12 at 13:25
@Mitch gave two example sentences from the article. – Markus Roellig Oct 30 '12 at 14:33
From your examples, this is now purely a style choice. 'Broad' is more closely associated in this context with...cripes it is no different from 'large'. but just has a slightly different feel to it. if there's this much doubt, big deal, go with the editor. – Mitch Oct 30 '12 at 15:24
up vote -1 down vote accepted

A broad surface is one where one dimension (side) is particularly large compared to the other. A rectangle with one side much more than the other is a broad surface (breadth: units of linear measure).

By contrast, a large surface is one where both the dimensions (sides) are more than usual such that it has a large area (area: units of square measure).

In the specific case, total surface area depends on both the sides, and as such it would be referred to as a large surface.

share|improve this answer
"Broad" depends on your orientation. By your definition, a long table should be called "broad" even if you're standing at a narrow end of it. That doesn't make sense. – Robusto Oct 30 '12 at 12:24
@Robusto In the context of comparing a broad surface with a large surface for area, orientation is not relevant. Your "point" is besides the point here. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 12:27
So you would call any 2x4 piece of lumber broad, simply because it has one dimension greater than the other? That is simply wrong. Also, what exactly do you mean by "one side much more than the other"? Much more what? Length? You went to great lengths to avoid using that word, it seems. – Robusto Oct 30 '12 at 12:38
I don't think a rectangle is "broad" if one side is much longer than the other. That would be "long", unless you have some restricted context. Please see my answer for more details. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 30 '12 at 13:04

"Broad" is a context-dependent word. It describes the size of an object along one axis or direction. But which direction depends on what you're looking at. Many things have an implicit ordering of dimensions.

  • A river is long, from its source to the sea. But it can be narrow or broad depending on the distance from one shore to the opposite shore.
  • Similarly, a street is only broad from one sidewalk to the other sidewalk. You cannot say it is broad along the axis of travel.
  • A table is only broad if its shortest side is considered wide for normal tables. If the longer side is considered longer than normal then you'd say it's "long". A square table can never be long.
  • When talking about something with only one dimension, it is common to use a word like "broad". Example, broad-spectrum antibiotics target a wide range of bacteria. Narrow spectrum antibiotics target a smaller range.
  • Some things have a definite "top/bottom" or "side" and those would be considered broad if the "side" dimension is long. Example, a book: the direction of the text tells you which way is "up"; the book can be tall or short independently of how broad/wide it is.

When it comes to area, calling an area "broad" really depends on your perspective. For arbitrary shapes in an abstract context, it might be acceptable to call something "broad" if it the side you are facing is long. But in that case you would need to, eg, explicitly label the axes "breadth" and "depth" or something. And it would be very arbitrary. Naturally speaking, words like long, short, tall, big, small, broad, narrow, etc, are highly dependent on the context. A pencil is "long" if it is longer than your other pencils or longer than an average pencil. But a short extension cord will still be much longer than any pencil. A broad sheet of paper will still fit quite easily on a narrow table.

share|improve this answer
When the context is given by the OP, how is this labored explanation relevant? – Kris Oct 31 '12 at 3:59
@Kris, When I posted my answer, there was no context. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 31 '12 at 14:03

Since "breadth" is a one-dimensional measure, and not a two-dimensional measure, I would say "broad" and "broadest" are actually wrong when talking about surface area. Use "large" and "largest".

share|improve this answer
OTOH, It seems broad is appropriate only for surfaces -- something needs to have two dimensions so as to be broad. – Kris Oct 30 '12 at 12:02
Broad-gauge railways are only measured in one dimension, across the breadth of the track. The length of the track is immaterial. – Andrew Leach Oct 30 '12 at 13:07

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