I have in front of me a map of an area in the Angeles National Forest that says at the bottom, "map not to scale." What, if anything, does "not to scale" properly mean on a map or diagram, and if people use it in incorrect ways, do they mean anything specific by it? I.e., is there a common misconception as to what it means?

I can think of two possible meanings for this phrase:

  1. The diagram does not show proper proportions. For example, we could have an anatomical diagram of a human body with the head the same size as the torso, or the famous New Yorker cover painting, "View of the World from 9th Avenue."

  2. The diagram is not full size. It's scaled down.

Interpretation 2 is obviously pretty silly in most of the cases where I've seen the phrase used. For example, I don't need a special warning label to tell me that the piece of paper on which the map is printed is smaller than the Angeles National Forest's real size. My guess would be that the correct meaning of the phrase is #1, but many people ignorantly use it to mean #2 or use it without any clear idea of what they think they're saying. In the particular example of the map I have in front of me, comparison with other maps seems to rule out interpretation #1 -- there don't seem to be any features on the map that are drawn out of proportion to other feautures.

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    I think this isn't even General Reference - it's just Common Sense. Who ever heard of a "full size map" for an area of land? Mar 25, 2014 at 20:13
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    I do not recall hearing anyone using "not to scale" to mean "not actual size," although I suppose somebody could make it as a casual mistake. I don't see a reason to get worked up about it though. Mar 25, 2014 at 20:33
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    @FumbleFingers Stephen Wright has a life size map of the United States. 'It says, "Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile." I spent last summer folding it. People ask me where I live, and I say, "E6".'
    – Patrick M
    Mar 26, 2014 at 1:23
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    Both Lewis Carroll (in "Sylvie and Bruno") and Jorge Luis Borges (in "On Exactitude In Science") examined the notion of a "full-scale" map. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Exactitude_in_Science But I doubt anyone else has ever taken the idea seriously. Mar 26, 2014 at 3:52
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    @terdon: [hangs head in shame] I am indeed unworthy. I've returned my "World's Biggest Blackadder Fan" to the BBC, and asked them to send me that life-sized map (which I assume they've kept in the props department, along with all the other holy relics). As penance, I shall eat every square inch of it (along with every word of my original comment and the Comte de Frou-Frou's sausage :) Mar 27, 2014 at 14:26

4 Answers 4


I can't comment on the specific case of the 'Angeles National Forest' map you mention, but in my experience, 'not drawn to scale' indicates your meaning '1', not meaning '2'.

One reason the phrase may be added to a map that appears to be scaled correctly might be as a disclaimer, to protect against litigation if someone gets lost, for instance. The phrase 'warning: contains nuts' on a packet of peanuts is a classic example of this kind of thinking.

The increasing prevalence of this practice is outlined in this 'Food Magazine' article.

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    I need a T-shirt like that.
    – user126158
    Mar 23, 2016 at 2:40

The message means #1: all parts of the map are not necessarily scaled identically (or accurately).

"There don't seem to be any features on the map that are drawn out of proportion to other features."

There might not seem to be any, yet there might be some. That's what the message is supposed to draw your attention to. If it were obvious that things are not to scale then saying so explicitly would not be so useful.

The message should be taken in the sense of the map not necessarily being accurate and constant wrt scale.

And there can be some map features (topographic symbols etc.) that do not necessarily accurately reflect the current sizes of the things they stand for (width of a road, stream, lake, or building).

And inaccuracy & imprecision can reduce a map's fidelity, and these can reflect slight local differences in scale. Add distortions due to projection...


In engineering drawings, a numeric dimension can be labelled Not to Scale to indicate an inaccurate proportion, as in your case 1. My instructor likes to use the example of drawing a broom; the most informative drawing would use cut lines to shorten the handle to allow the grip and the head of the broom to be drawn larger. The dimension for the overall length would be marked Not to Scale to warn the viewer to pay attention to the misrepresentation of the objects actual proportions.

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    An even better example is a visualization of the solar system: The space between planets is much bigger than the sun, the sun much bigger than jupiter which is in turn much bigger than smaller planets. So you're pretty much required to reduce distances in space compared to object sizes and draw large objects too small compared to smaller objects. Mar 26, 2014 at 8:52
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    "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." Wait, that is recursive...
    – user126158
    Mar 23, 2016 at 2:42

On plans, maps, and engineering drawings it means that you should not measure a length on the document and then expect to be able to calculate the “real life” distance from it. (Sometime there is a warning saying “Do not scale”, meaning do try to calculate the real life measure from what you have measured on the document.)

On a real estate listing, the plan shows how the rooms relate to each other, not their correct size. The room sizes may be listed in the description.

So for example the construction plan of a house is drawn to show the rough sizes of the rooms, then the dimension of the rooms are written on. The window that is shown in a room should not be measured on the plan to get its size, you should look the specification document for the window size and how far it’s edge is from the corner of the room.

Or on a map, if there are two side roads very close to each other, they will be moved apart a bit so as to make the map easier to understand, this is called Cartographic generalization.

Cartographic generalization is the method whereby information is selected and represented on a map in a way that adapts to the scale of the display medium of the map, not necessarily preserving all intricate geographical or other cartographic details. The cartographer is given license to adjust the content within their maps to create a suitable and useful map that conveys geospatial information, while striking the right balance between the map's purpose and actuality of the subject being mapped.

On some town maps, the centre of the town will be shown in more detail, as if you are looking down on the town with a “fish eye” lens. The user of the map is expected to be walking round the centre of the town, the rest of the town is just shown to allow the user to orientate themselves.

  • If I were making (or reading) an architectural drawing I would use the phrases "not to scale" and "do not scale" differently. "Not to scale" simply means what it says (per previous answers). "Do not scale" tends to appear on drawings which are prepared to scale, but should not be used as a reference for construction; e.g. because they aren't large enough to provide the required accuracy, or they're not from the final signed-off package of drawings, or they include dimensions that need to be adjusted on site.
    – bobtato
    Jul 13, 2014 at 13:50