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What's the difference between shatter and splinter?

Are they interchangeable?

Their definitions from Cambridge dictionary are as follows:

Shatter(V):

to (cause something to) break suddenly into very small pieces.

Splinter(V):

to break into small, sharp pieces.

Can I say "The car window was shattered (or splintered) last night."?

  • Car windshield glass is purposely made not to splinter or shatter. – George White Mar 14 '14 at 3:07
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    @George: Car windshield glass shatters, but the pieces aren't very sharp, and for the most part stay in place. – Peter Shor Mar 14 '14 at 3:08
  • @PeterShor From Merriam Webster online - "shat·ter·proof adjective \ˈsha-tər-ˌprüf\ : made so that it does not break easily and will not form sharp, dangerous pieces if it does break" – George White Mar 14 '14 at 4:46
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Splinter derives from splint, which is a strip or thin piece, a slender piece of wood.

The etymology of shatter shows it is based on scateren or scatter.

So splinter contains additional information about the form of the object(s) involved. Shatter doesn't address the shape.

splintered glass: enter image description here

shattered glass enter image description here

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Something that shatters breaks into small pieces. Something that splinters breaks into thin pieces (which can themselves be called splinters). The distinction is not as well observed as one might wish, but in general, when a material splinters, it breaks into pieces that are much longer than they are wide, like wood breaking with the grain.

  • And something that shatters may break into shards (although these two words seem to be unrelated etymologically). – Peter Shor Mar 14 '14 at 3:09
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    Right; the spl- assonance has a strong 1-dimensional component. – John Lawler Mar 14 '14 at 3:15
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    Really cool John, but doesn't that link suggest spli- is the one with the particular connotation of 1D objects? As opposed to spla- (splatter, splash) which has a 2D, and others which don't seem to have any dimensional connotation? – Hugh Mar 14 '14 at 4:24
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Typically the difference implies a quality of the material itself:

Things like glass, plastic, bone and other rigid materials shatter. Shattering is the act of bursting into many small pieces after a forceful impact.

Things like wood, bone, and other fibrous materials splinter. Splintering is more of a tearing action where small spicule shaped pieces are torn from the greater mass.

(And, yes I know that bone is in both categories, but it depends upon the mechanism and force of the injury.)

For the most part, people would use shatter to describe their windows. Glass can splinter, but shatter is a much more common term for the breaking of it.

Neither of these terms is 100% exclusive, and they are often used interchangeably, but following the distinctions above will generally keep you out of trouble.

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