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Which of the sentences below looks more natural?

  • Question answering systems that appear with the aim of providing precise textual answers.
  • Question answering systems that appear with the aim of providing exact textual answers.
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closed as off topic by Kris, MετάEd, Bill Franke, tchrist, Robusto Jan 9 '13 at 16:08

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I'd use precise. Even though they are often interchangeable, exact has connotations of numerical precision that precise doesn't always have. It's just a feeling. Others may disagree. "Healthy" isn't a reasonable adjective for how to write a sentence unless you mean that you don't want anyone to punch or shoot or knife you because you've said the wrong thing. –  user21497 Jan 5 '13 at 12:25
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Um, off topic, sorry, but are they actually sentences? They seem like noun phrases to me. When you say "that appear with the aim of providing", do you mean "aim to provide"? –  donothingsuccessfully Jan 5 '13 at 16:26

3 Answers 3

In the physical sciences, a series of measurements are precise if they cluster tightly around a single value, with a low variance relative to the magnitude of the mean value. In slightly more casual usage, both precise and exact mean "reported with a low level of uncertainty." If, for example, a politician is asked to give a number for how much a proposed project will cost, the response is:

I wouldn't at this moment be able to give an exact/precise figure...

Meaning that he might be able to give at best an approximate value. As for the sample sentences given, ...provide precise/exact textual answers would mean

...consistently provide the same answer (whether wrong or right) to the same or similar questions.

Both precise and exact are, in careful usage, different from accurate. An accurate measurement is one which is close to the "true" value of the measured quantity, and an accurate answer is a correct answer. It may be worth considering whether accurate is what is wanted.

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If I say that I am 3.0578529 metres tall, I am giving a value which is very precise, but highly inaccurate. –  TRiG Jan 5 '13 at 17:20

I'm guessing Benyamin's answer isn't being endorsed because of the supplementary explanation, not because people disagree with the word-choice itself for OP's context.

There's certainly sufficient overlap that exact could reasonably be used, but precise is marginally "better" simply because it has more appropriate connotations (accurate, careful about details, etc).

In some more restricted variants on OP's context, it's possible exact might actually be the better word. For example, suppose you're trying to emphasise the fact that there's one and only one "correct" answer, which can be expressed very succinctly. If two answers have been posted, you could reasonably say the shorter one is more exact if the longer one contains a wealth of precise detail that's not really relevant to the answer.

I'm sure some people would say that precise always implies short and to the point in all relevant contexts. But to me at least, if I'm postulating that there is in principle a single "idealised" correct answer, it's possible for someone to come up with exactly that.

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The words precise and exact do not mean the same.

The phrase therefore can mean different things depending on which of the words is used. Both are correct and both are "natural".

Question answering systems that appear with the aim of providing precise textual answers

The above would be logical, and makes more sense, to the extent that the answers are expected to be more well-defined or less ambiguous.

Question answering systems that appear with the aim of providing exact textual answers

The above presumes there exists an answer to every question dealt with, and the system provides just that answer and nothing less or more. This may be the case where there are sets of questions and answers that the system merely implements faithfully.

Note that this is an interpretation from the language point of view. (Popular) Usage in the field may vary.

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