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
  • The difference is context. Context. – Lambie Dec 31 '19 at 18:56

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 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
  • It should also be noted that an abstract or an executive summary of a publication is typically set out separately from the rest of it, and is often labelled as such; the other terms can be used for something that is embedded in a larger body of text, without being clearly demarcated (e.g. the first chapter of a book may include a summary or an overview of the book's argument). – jsw29 Dec 30 '19 at 17:20

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")

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  • 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
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    +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.

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  • 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

None of the earlier answers to this question have cited any authority for the particular distinctions that they make. In case some readers may be interested in reference-work assessments of the relevant differences, I offer discussions from several such works. I should note at the outset that none of them include coverage of overview, although I have no idea why they don't.

James Fernald, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms & Prepositions, revised edition (1947), includes coverage of abstract, summary, and synopsis (along with abbreviation, analysis, compend, compendium, digest, epitome, outline, and précis) under the category name abridgment. Here is Fernald's coverage of the three terms of special interest:

An outline or synopsis is a kind of sketch closely following the plan [of a book]. An abstract or digest is an independent statement of what the book contains. ... A summary is the most condensed statement of results or conclusions.

This treatment of abstract, summary, and synopsis is identical to the treatment that appears in Fernald's English Synonyms and Antonyms, thirty-first edition (1914). In my view, while the descriptions of abstract and synopsis may still be accurate, the description of summary treats that word far more restrictively than most people do who use it today.

S. I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms (1968) groups abstract and synopsis (as well as abridgment, digest, outline, and précis) under the category name summary. Here are the relevant portions of Hayakawa's coverage:

These words refer to a short description of the main points of a longer work or presentation. Summary is the most general of these words, referring to any attempt to condense into as few words as possible an extended train of thought: a day-to-day summary of the proceedings in the murder trial; concluding each chapter with a summary of its main arguments. The word implies a pithy paraphrase, with no attempt to catch the style of the original. Also, the word almost exclusively refers to something that follows after and is based on the extended presentation, or even concludes it—as suggested by the common phrase in speechmaking: in summary. Abstract and précis both refer to summaries written most often by someone other than the original author; hence they are seldom part of the original presentation, though they follow it and are based on it. Like summary, they stress brevity and the schematic representation of essential points with no attempt to preserve flavor. Abstract most specifically refers to a scholarly or legal citation that gives the gist of what may be a complex argument or study: a quarterly containing abstracts of doctoral dissertations in progress; an abstract of the proposed legislation. ...

Outline and synopsis relate to précis in that they both retain the point-by-point ordering of the original; they are both most often a skeletal setting down of these points, but may be drawn up either by the author or someone else before, as well as after, the writing of the original. Within these possibilities, outline covers a wider range than synopsis. ... Synopsis usually refers to a plot summary of a piece of fiction. Ordinary prose sentences are most often used, rather than the numbered and lettered list suggested by outline. It may tell in capsule form events treated in a completed work or those planned for a projected work: submitting the first chapter of his novel and a synopsis of the unwritten remainder; writing synopses of novels submitted as candidates for film treatment. The word may also refer to a paragraph that retells previous action and introduces an installment of a serialized work of fiction.

Hayakawa's assessment of how people use summary is seems generally valid for today's usage, although in my experience an "executive summary" physically precedes a full report or article rather than following it.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1968/1984) omits coverage of both overview and summary, but addresses abstract and synopsis as part of a larger group of words that also includes epitome, brief, and conspectus, under the category name abridgment:

abridgment, abstract, epitome, brief, synopsis, conspectus mean a condensation of a larger work or treatment, usually one already in circulation. ... Abstract implies condensation of a lengthy treatise or of a proposed lengthy treatment and stresses concentration of substance {abstracts of state papers} {an abstract of a lecture} ... Both abstract and epitome are used also in extended senses in reference to persons or things, the former stressing one or other (of the persons or things referred to) as a summary, the latter as a type representing a whole {a man who is the abstract of all faults that all men follow—Shak.} ... Synopsis and conspectus imply the giving of the salient points of a treatise or subject so that it may be quickly comprehended. Synopsis, however, often suggests an outline or coherent series of headings and conspectus a coherent account that gives a bird's-eye view {provide in advance a synopsis of the lectures}

As for overview, its meaning in modern English seems to be very close to that of summary, to judge from its brief entry in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

overview n (1588) : a general survey : SUMMARY

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Summary - Its sums up, like a conclusion, and is used at the end of the document. Many people, instead of reading the entire document that is large, refers to the summary.

Abstract - Mostly seen in journals that tells what it is all about, very briefly. Abstract is commonly seen in government orders too. Abstract comes at the start of the document.

Overview - It is a general view; not that analytical, and is often the beginning of an analysis.

Synopsis - Is a brief version of the manuscript which is sent to a publisher, on the basis of which the write-up/ manuscript is chosen.

Though all these refer to concise/abridged version of a manuscript, the purposes are different.

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