There may not be a right answer but hopefully there can be a best answer. Obviously we use these terms quite interchangeably (which I find annoying), and dictionaries have a lot of overlap in their definitions of these words because dictionaries often don't attempt to contrast words with each other. But if we had to give some rigorous definitions to these words what would they be? They can still have overlap, as long as the overlap is clearly explained. I prefer answers that prove themselves with examples of how your definitions already match with popular usage.

These words (can) all share the same meaning of describing what something is like or what it has. But then what are their useful differences? Some details to consider: which of these are more abstract and which are more tangible? which are more tightly bound to an object and which are more alienable? which are more subjective and which are more objective?

Here is some pre-research for you. (Or a source of confusion.) Pertinent definitions from dicionary.com.

property a quality, attribute, or distinctive feature of anything, esp a characteristic attribute such as the density or strength of a material

quality an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute: the chemical qualities of alcohol.

characteristic a distinguishing feature or quality: Generosity is his chief characteristic.

attribute something attributed as belonging to a person, thing, group, etc.; a quality, character, characteristic, or property: Sensitivity is one of his attributes.

feature a prominent or conspicuous part or characteristic: Tall buildings were a new feature on the skyline.

trait a distinguishing characteristic or quality, especially of one's personal nature: bad traits of character.

aspect nature; quality; character: the superficial aspect of the situation.

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    Stackexchange is not a good fit for “a multitude of opinions [rather than] one right answer.” Otherwise, your question seems fine, so I recommend simply removing that sentence. Aug 1, 2013 at 9:38
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    Fine, I removed that statement, but it is still my secret aim. @Kris If people want to answer based on a domain they are familiar with that is fine. Ideally the answer would try to synthesize usage from all domains. If one must be picked then I would say philosophy.
    – Moss
    Aug 1, 2013 at 9:53
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    The question is too broad for a Q&A site.
    – Kris
    Aug 1, 2013 at 9:54
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    You mean too much work to answer? As in I should have asked about less words?
    – Moss
    Aug 1, 2013 at 20:49
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    Please take this question off of hold. It is a perfectly good question. It had 5 upvotes and only 2 down. I was working on a answer to it myself. This is totally uncalled for.
    – Moss
    Aug 2, 2013 at 2:33

2 Answers 2


Which of these are more abstract, and which are more tangible? Which are more subjective and which are more objective? Which are more tightly bound to an object?

I'm not sure how definitively your question can be answered, because language itself is quite flexible. All of these words could be used in several ways – even more so when a writer or speaker is deliberately using hyperbole and metaphors.

That said, I'll take a crack at this:

  • more objective, abstract, and tightly bound: property, quality, characteristic
  • more subjective, visual, and pliant: attribute, feature, trait

I've left off aspect because I don't think that aspect of aspect is easily located on this spectrum.

Other nuances can be found in the definitions you've provided (for example, I'd likely characterize freckles as a feature or attribute – more so than a property or characteristic – and the definitions support that, by mentioning belonging to a person, and conspicuous characteristic). Therefore, I won't elaborate any more on what the dictionary already provides.

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    Further, feature suggests and important characteristic, and trait suggests an inclination rather than a fixed quality. Finally quality suggest a valuation (usually positive, but sometimes negative) of the attribute.
    – bib
    Aug 1, 2013 at 11:58
  • J.R. I came up with a similar ranking before yours, so that is good.
    – Moss
    Aug 1, 2013 at 21:39

To me, the choice between these words is one of style. Which word sounds more eloquent or fits with the cadence of the sentence? Unless there are significant differences in meaning, any one of them could work but some will sound and read better.

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