Broad and wide are near synonyms but only near, since "a broad smile" is a more common collocation than "a wide smile", and you can say "eyes wide open" but not "eyes broad open".

Breadth and width seem to be closer synonyms since both are defined in Collins Dictionary Online as:

the linear extent or measurement of something from side to side

Why are the adjectives/adverbs broad and wide not as interchangeable as the nouns breadth and width seem to be?

  • I would have to disagree with the statement that a smile can't be wide--and so would the Telegraph: telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/10134201/… – Louel Feb 20 '14 at 20:53
  • 2
    Interestingly both words are of Germanic origin, and come to us from Old English. Usually when there are two words that mean almost exactly the same thing, one will be of Saxon the other of Norman origin. But that is not so in this case, it seems. – WS2 Feb 20 '14 at 21:38
  • @Louel: I can only bow… – user58319 Feb 20 '14 at 21:39

To quote from the late Charles Fillmore's Deixis Lecture on "Space" (p.24) on wide:

In expressing measurement of objects that are viewed as having a spatial orientation, the adjectives that accompany these measurement indications are selected according to a number of assumptions we make about the salient dimensions and the specific spatial orientation of the objects in question.

Consider first the way in which the word wide is used in measurement expressions for roughly oblong objects. Suppose there is a plot of land 75 feet by 200 feet in dimension out in the middle of nowhere, and you ask somebody to go out and measure it and to report to you the results of his measurements. He will probably come back and tell you that the lot is 75 feet wide and 200 feet long.

Now build a road along the 200 foot length of this lot in a way to suggest that this is a lot that has one of its borders along a road in some future housing development, and ask somebody to go out and measure the lot. This time you will be told that the lot is 200 feet wide and 75 feet deep.

Putting the road alongside of the lot will have served to designate one border of that lot as its front, and when an object to be measured has a front/back orientation in space, the word wide is used in measuring the left-to-right extent along its front, and the word used for indicating the measurement of its front-to-back distance is the word deep.

Broad does not have this particular detail; it seems to be usable for the smaller dimension of any oriented oblong, and also to indicate the side-to-side dimension of any oriented path (a broad trail), which is a special case.

  • I'm not sure this captures the assumptions that go into describing a smile or shoulders as broad. That is, I think there are still assumptions, just different ones. Perhaps in contrast to height rather than length. – Bradd Szonye Feb 20 '14 at 22:32
  • @John Lawler: I like your answer since it goes to show that a choice of words is never random; there are always good reasons – reasons you can explain to someone – for choosing a word rather than another one. – user58319 Feb 21 '14 at 12:19
  • It's always the speaker's decision what to say and how to say it. Why they may choose one way over another involves a lot of choices, mostly unconscious. You might as well ask about how one goes about choosing chocolate cake for dessert instead of peach cobbler. People vary in just about every way. – John Lawler Feb 21 '14 at 15:59

In my opinion, initially at least,

  • wide had to do with the space between two objects, how wide apart they are, whereas
  • broad had to do with the space taken up by an object, from side to side.

When you say "eyes wide open", you mean there is a great space between the upper and lower eyelids, not that the eyes themselves are particularly large or protruding.

When you say "a broad smile", you do not mean there is a great space between the upper and lower lips, but that the corners of the mouth stretch so far out that the smile takes up quite some space on the face, extends from one side of it to the other.

This distinction seems lost in breadth and width, although I am under the impression that you use breadth when the object has one main, obvious dimension, e.g. "broad shoulders", and width when the object — a table or a board, for instance — obviously has different dimensions: length, width, height, thickness, etc.

  • The river is wide and so are the wide open spaces. You also cast a wide net. I don't think wide only deals with edges. – bib Feb 20 '14 at 21:25
  • Absolutely, the space between the banks of the river, the space encompassed in the horizon, wherever you turn, same thing for netting or mesh. Space encompassed in limits, boundaries, and not space taken up by an object (broad, breadth)… – user58319 Feb 20 '14 at 21:33
  • A 6" inch wide board? A wide noodle (as well as a broad noodle)? – bib Feb 20 '14 at 21:36
  • Broadway or Wideway? – user58319 Feb 20 '14 at 21:55
  • @bib: the width of a board… see my edited answer – user58319 Feb 20 '14 at 22:00

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