I designed a logo for a client. He liked the idea it presented, but wanted to see alternative ways to represent its idea, so I came up with several new designs of similar concept. I now have to package the new designs into a presentation document, and when it came to titling its sections, I wondered: are the new designs variants of the initial one, or are they variations?

  • In your context, only a pedant would claim any difference. In other contexts, variant can be an adjective, but variation can't. – FumbleFingers Jan 30 '14 at 1:11
  • They are variations not variants. Give it a thought and read your question (the specific case) and wonder why. The choice is easy so I am not telling it right away. – Kris Jan 30 '14 at 6:18
  • Only after fruitlessly puzzling over it did I post the question in the first place, @Kris. Even after a re-read, I would guess variant, if I had to pick one, as that sounds more like a specific element, e.g. a logo design, rather than the action of the design being made. (As I understand cHao to be saying.) But I get side-tracked wondering whether the logos can consistently claim either term, or whether it all depends on how I'm constructing the sentence in which I refer to them. All that to say, I don't see how you got to your conclusion. I hope you're willing to share. – Eve Jan 31 '14 at 3:00

Very strictly speaking, variation is change, and a variant is one of the forms resulting from the change.

The use of variation to mean variant is so common, though, that only a hardcore pedant would ever even recognize a difference in that context, much less say either one is incorrect.

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    Even a pedant might choke on "variants on a theme" rather than "variations on a theme". – user24964 Jan 30 '14 at 1:38
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    @TheMathemagician: Indeed. But he'd typically say "variants of a theme" instead, if he were pedantic enough to recognize a difference between the two words in this context. – cHao Jan 30 '14 at 1:39
  • Makes sense. Though by these definitions, it's hard to think of an example use case of the word variation in everyday speech. I can see it in a technical context, e.g., "The number of letters in American first names has a higher variation this decade than last." But can you provide some colloquial examples? – chharvey Sep 2 '16 at 18:01
  • @chharvey: The phrase "variations on a theme", as mentioned in these comments, is rather common. Others don't immediately jump out at me, but some dictionaries have examples. (Merriam-Webster, for one, gives the example "the movie begins with a somewhat irreverent variation on the Nativity story".) There's more examples of variation as change. Either way, it does seem more a highbrow word. – cHao Sep 12 '16 at 1:05
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    Is there a parallel between mutation and mutant? Because that's easy for me to understand. Mutants (X-Men, turtles, etc.) are the results of mutations (changes) to their DNA. – istrasci May 15 '17 at 18:24

A variation is something that differs from a standard or from something considered normal, while a variant differs from other things in its own class--that is, it's not something that necessarily differs from a norm or standard. Source: Garner's Modern American Usage.


Coming from a technical perspective, if I report that I tackled a problem using a variant of Algorithm A, then this variant is most likely one that other people have used before and there is literature on its use. If instead I say I was using a variation of Algorithm A, then the existing variants of Algorithm A didn't meet the particular requirements of my problem and I therefore needed to create my own adaptation. People after me might decide to call this a variant of Algorithm A, if they deem it close enough to the original.

Caution: I'm not a native English speaker.

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