I am having an argument with my cousin after I called a tractor a "device." He argues that tractors are machines, but never "devices."

Thoughts, folks?

  • Of possibly related interest: english.stackexchange.com/questions/7676/… , english.stackexchange.com/questions/8283/… .
    – choster
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 21:27
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    Assuming you are quoting him correcty, I have a bigger problem with your cousin's use of the overly restrictive "never" than your use of the rather imprecise "device." :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 11:19
  • I agree with J.R. that the word "never" is an overstatement. It may seem unusual in most contexts to a natural English speaker, but there are contexts, as Edwin Ashworth mentioned below, where "device" actually IS the better choice.
    – TecBrat
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 11:57

4 Answers 4


The notion that one cannot call a tractor a “device” is mistaken, albeit not misguided. That is, tractors are usually called tractors instead of devices. (Note, a common sense of device is “Any piece of equipment made for a particular purpose, especially a mechanical or electrical one”.)

Historically, some agricultural equipment has been referred to by the term device. Here is a portion of the OED1 (1897) entry for device, with two of the example sentences:

7. ... an invention, contrivance ; esp. a mechanical contrivance (usually of a simple character) for some particular purpose. ... 1577: the devise was, a lowe kinde of Carre with a couple of wheeles, and the Front armed with sharpe Syckles, which forced by the beast through the Corne, did cut downe al before it. ... 1874: The devices for baling cut hay.

  • I guess the question is whether a machine like a tractor may be included in the class of devices... That is, semantically, would a device be the superclass for machines? Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 19:12
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    @zealoushacker, yes, a machine like a tractor is in the class of devices. Re superclass or hypernym relationships, I don't know. Simple machines are in the class of devices, and complex machines may contain vast numbers of devices, making a class relation unclear (to me). Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 19:24
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    So I guess calling a harvester a beast is apropos.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 19:41
  • @bib, in “forced by the beast through the Corne” beast refers to the motive power for the harvester, rather than the harvester itself. Nowadays that would be a tractor (unless the harvester is self-propelled, in which case it would refer to an engine and drive-train), and back in 1577, would have been an ox, mule, or horse. Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 21:55

I normally think of device as "A contrivance or an invention serving a particular purpose, especially a machine used to perform one or more relatively simple tasks".

Given that definition, it is not a great word for tractor, which is a very complex and adaptable machine, capable of performing all kinds of tasks.

  • 2
    [Man] has devised the tractor, the motor-car and all other machinery (Internet) is surely quite admissible. Anything (including abstract concepts) that has been devised can surely be termed a device. However, like the vast majority of people, I'm sure, I'd rarely if ever call a tractor a device (the exception being if I were highlighting the fact that it has been devised). Language is idiosyncratic. Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 22:01
  • @EdwinAshworth, exactly...or if Odysseus had invented the tractor, it may be more natural to number it among his "many devices" :)
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 14:16

According to Oxford Dictionary:

A device is:

a thing made or adapted for a particular purpose,
especially a piece of mechanical or electronic equipment

A machine is:

an apparatus using or applying mechanical power and having several parts,
each with a definite function and together performing

Technically a tractor could be either, by these definitions. However common use refers to device as a smaller item (something that can be held in your hand as it is used). I usually imagine device as something small and easily portable, and a machine as a larger item.


A tractor is a tool that can be used. But a device is a tool that is actually used. The word 'devise' assumes use, but machine does not. A pencil is a tool but it is not actually a device until it is used, then it is a device. A machine is a machine only, and not a device, if it is not used. But if it is used, it is a device. A machine is a machine whether it is used or not.

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    I think this answer is wrong and doesn't make sense. Can you cite any reference or give any justification for the notion that “'devise' assumes use, but machine does not”? Also note, devise and device are different words with rather different meanings. Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 15:20

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