2

My understanding with the words exact, precise and accurate is that they are absolute. Meaning, there cannot be less accurate or more accurate. Is my understanding correct? If it's exactly 1 meter, then there cannot be more exact than 1 meter. Also, are these words (exact, precise and accurate) exact synonyms? I have read their meanings in the dictionary and they are, well, the same.

I am writing a blog that has a title "Love and Lust". I want to point out that it is more accurate/precise to say that the title should be "Romantic Love and Lust", as there are three kinds of love.

  • 1
    They are mere exaggerations. Usually comparative. If a thing is accurate and some other thing advances it, it's more accurate. But it isn't formal. – VijayaRagavan Nov 13 '13 at 5:01
2
  1. You can have more and less accurate. It is the closeness to a target. Rifle shooters are awarded points in order of accuracy to the bulls'eye. The accuracy of the description from the eyewitness with bad eyesight, was very low.

  2. Precise relates to very fine detail - how carefully measured (or described) something is. You can be precise and not accurate. I have two watches. One with only hours minutes, but the other gives seconds also, so more precise measuring of time. ( I wish it was digital and even more precise to 0.1 seconds measurement). Anyway, I missed my 9:00am train every morning for a week using the more precise watch! How ? Every day I arrived at the train platform very precisely at 8:54:49 (+/- 1 second) - repeatedly - I am very measured! However, I kept missing the train! Why? Well because the time on the watch had not been set accurately - it was 15 minutes out from the true time - inaccurate. I was measuring precisely ( to the nearest second) but was not at all accurate in my time measurement. Precise but not accurate. A person can give a precise (detailed ) description of a location (bench, path, fence, gate , tree, rock, etc) - but be totally inaccurate to the actual location (on a map say, or street name in a town) of an event.

  3. "I am writing a blog that has a title "Love and Lust". I want to point out that it is more accurate/precise to say that the title should be "Romantic Love and Lust", as there are three kinds of love."

Perhaps the words you want are less ambiguous (more defined, more clear):

I want to point out that it is less ambiguous to say that the title should be "Romantic Love and Lust", as there are three kinds of love.

Otherwise I think I would go with both - precise (more detailed description) and accurate :

I want to point out that it is more precise, and accurate, to say that the title should be "Romantic Love and Lust", as there are three kinds of love.

  • Excellent answer! Welcome to ELU. Do take the tour :o) – Will Crawford Feb 3 '18 at 13:47
4

Both "precision" and "accuracy" are measured along a gradient of success. This is usually refereed to as the "degree of accuracy" or "degree of precision." When referring to a specific instrument, the measurement should be contextually obvious:

This ruler is accurate within one millimeter.

This cannon is so precise I can hit a target from one thousand yards.

"Precision" and "accuracy" are also contrasted with the word "error":

The margin of error for this thermometer is 0.001 degrees.

This means that neither word necessarily imply absolutes. When supplied without a specific qualification the details are either assumed via context or are not relevant for in this particular context.

This bow and arrow is precise.

You can easily add subjective qualifiers to this usage or even add an absolute qualifier:

This bow and arrow is [extremely/very] precise.

This bow and arrow is perfectly precise.


The word "exact" is different in that it implies an absolute.

What were their exact words?

I need these measurements to be exact.

But the concept of a "margin of error" is still implied because the real world doesn't appreciate absolutes. If you want exact measurements you still need to stop at a certain level of precision. The following conversation still makes sense:

I need these measurements to be exact.

How precise?

Within one millimeter.

Amusingly, this also means the question, "How exact?" has an immediately understandable meaning given the appropriate context.


In the end, neither "accurate" nor "precise" necessarily imply an absolute. "Exact" does imply an absolute but only in a philosophical sense. If you are using the word "exact" to describe reality then it is perfectly acceptable to ask for an acceptable degree of accuracy or margin of error (unless it actually is feasible to achieve a perfect result.)


As for your second question, there is a subtle difference between "accuracy" and "precision" when used within a scientific context. Wikipedia has an entire article on the topic. Here is their quick overview of the distinction:

Accuracy is the proximity of measurement results to the true value; precision, the repeatability, or reproducibility of the measurement.

In other words, "accuracy" refers to how well you did and "precision" refers to how differently each of your attempts were. A specific example: If you threw three darts at a dartboard and they all landed next to each other then your throwing arm was precise. If they landed near the bullseye then your throwing arm was accurate.

Colloquially, there is no distinction between the two.

-1

Let's define these words so we can figure out if they are absolute or not.

exact - not approximated in any way. As we can see, it is an absolute.

accurate - correct in all details; exact. Also absolute.

precise - marked by exactness and accuracy of expression or detail. Also absolute.

Hmm... People say more precise/accurate/exact in informal communication. Either we have to invent a new word that isn't absolute but measures "accuracy" or define those words as non-absolutes.

TL;DR: They are absolutes, but we use more and less in informal discussion.

  • I'll agree that "exact" is absolute, but I don't see anything wrong with the sentence: "How accurate can you make this measurement?" (And the same with "precise".) As used as technical terms by scientists, at least, those words are not absolute. – Peter Shor Nov 13 '13 at 6:49
  • Hi @PeterShor. I understand what you are telling here. Well, I do not know how scientists think or how they use the words, but as an ordinary person, I tend to look at the dictionary and other trusted resources to look for the standard definition. Are the scientists misusing the words or it is actually accepted? – Lester Nubla Nov 14 '13 at 9:32
  • Here's the Ngram. – Peter Shor Nov 14 '13 at 16:27
  • 2
    One test to decide whether an adjective is gradeable is to see whether you can use very before it; "very accurate" sounds fine to me, but "very exact" doesn't and "very precise" is questionable. From Google Ngrams (see last comment; the URL didn't fit in this one), I'd say that "exact" is absolute, but "accurate" and "precise" are reasonably widely accepted as gradeable. Note that the classifications have changed in the last hundred years. – Peter Shor Nov 14 '13 at 16:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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