Are there subtle differences in meaning between the nouns summary, abstract, overview, and synopsis?

Which would be the most appropriate term for a one-page "executive summary" of a research report?

From Wiktionary:

  • summary: An abstract or a condensed presentation of the substance of a body of material.
  • abstract: An abridgement or summary.
  • overview: A brief summary, as of a book or a presentation.
  • synopsis: A brief summary of the major points of a written work, either as prose or as a table; an abridgment or condensation of a work.
  • Personally I would use 'synopsis' but any of them would work. – WS2 Feb 11 '14 at 22:30
  • Don't forget "précis"! Oh, and "thumbnail sketch," too. Précis certainly has some snob appeal, no? (I mean "Mais oui?") Don – rhetorician Feb 12 '14 at 0:38
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    I like Professor David Barnhill's argument for precis: "A precis is a brief summary of a larger work. The term "abstract" has the same meaning and is much more common, but I prefer the term precis because of its relation to the word "precise," and because of the way the word is pronounced: "pray-see." A precis is a precise condensation of the basic thesis and major points of a paper; it tells the reader the gist of what has been said." uwosh.edu/facstaff/barnhill/490-docs/assignments/precis – Mark D Worthen PsyD Feb 23 '18 at 0:24

Summary is the most catch-all term of this group, and the one that shows up the most in general everyday English.

Abstract is most commonly used in the scientific context. It is typically a formal requirement for publication, as the initial section of a scientific paper. Often times if you find scientific papers online, it is just the abstract that is available.

Overview is similar in literal meaning to "summary". It has a slight informality to it.

Synopsis again could be exchanged directly for "summary" in most contexts. It has a slightly more formal feel, and shows up in the literature and the arts a bit more frequently than other contexts (e.g., "I just want to read a synopsis of the novel, not the whole thing" sounds a bit better than "summary"). A synopsis often is often more detailed than a regular "summary".

Executive Summary shows up most often in a business context, or sometimes also in a political context (e.g., think-tank white papers).

Any of these would probably work in a research report, but it would also depend on the audience. Scientists would probably be most comfortable with "Abstract"; MBAs with "Executive Summary"; for a more general public audience where you want to seem accessible, "Overview". If you're not sure, I can't imagine going wrong with "Summary".

Note that I'm American, so this answer applies most directly to American English.

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    This one-page PDF from a community college writing center complements joseph_morris's excellent summary (above). jccc.edu/student-resources/tutors-accessibility/writing-center/… – Mark D Worthen PsyD Mar 7 '18 at 2:53
  • Also, there is somewhat called abrégé, which is placed right after the heading of each chapter. Abrégé is very (not longer then 1/2 of a page, i.e. it is shorter then typical abstract) and describes the chapter instead of document. (Feel free to correct me). – john c. j. Apr 7 '18 at 22:26
  • @johnc.j. As you can see from the Wiktionary article you link, abrégé is only a word in French. If it was an English word as well, it would have a separate listing under "English". – joseph_morris Apr 10 '18 at 22:39

synopsis suggests an outline or series of key points, sometimes implying restraint in keeping factual, objective, professional, or formal ("a synopsis of North American flora" or "a synopsis of the novel")

summary implies moving from the specific to the more general or the gist or take-away of something, and it is more likely to include the subjective ("summarized the movie as a bad coming-of-age drama")

overview implies a comprehensive, coherent whole or bird's-eye view ("gave an overview of the project")

abstract and precis both denote that the subject is a text

abstract is commonly used in technical and scientific contexts ("wrote an abstract for a scholarly journal article")

  • Welcome to English SE! Could you edit to include citations for these definitions? This site generally prefers well-sourced answers, and unsourced ones may be removed. – Rand al'Thor Aug 7 '17 at 8:06
  • +1 for reminding me of the phrase that I sought: bird's-eye view. Thanks. – Graham Perrin Oct 14 '17 at 6:56

A little more detail:

The most appropriate term for a one page summary of a research report would normally be "Abstract", as it gives the abstract or high-level information without the details. The body may be labeled as "Detail". (They are essentially opposites, or complements. Abstract:Detail)

If the information is expected to summarize the points upon which a decision is to be made then "Executive Summary", meaning summary of the actionable parts, would be used.

See definitions of "Abstract" and "Executive" for the reasons this is so.

Although summary and synopsis are very close in meaning due to common usage, a summary is supposed to contain conclusions (sum, total) "In summary, therefore, I say to you .." while a synopsis is an overview.

I am an American English speaker.

  • Also, there is somewhat called abrégé, which is placed right after the heading of each chapter. Abrégé is very (not longer then 1/2 of a page, i.e. it is shorter then typical abstract) and describes the chapter instead of document. (Feel free to correct me). – john c. j. Apr 7 '18 at 22:25

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