At work I keep seeing the term narrations as opposed to narratives and I'm trying to understand if this is common across the English speaking world or if this is just a term in the US.

  • 2
    These are different. A narration is the act of narrating, while a narrative is basically a story. Jul 22, 2014 at 3:10
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    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 6, 2014 at 7:01

1 Answer 1


I've always understood the distinction between narration and narrative in much the same way that Jonathon Spirit describes it in his brief comment above. However, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) provides overlapping definitions that present readers with far muddier waters. For the noun narration, the Eleventh Collegiate has this:

narration n (15c) 1 : the act or process or an instance of narrating 2 : STORY, NARRATIVE

And for the noun narrative, it has this:

narrative n (1567) 1 : something that is narrated : STORY, ACCOUNT 2 : the art or practice of narration 3 : the representation in art of an event or story; also : an example of such a representation

A quick comparison of the two sets of definitions suggests that narration definition 1 and narrative definition 2 are extremely similar, and that narration definition 2 and narrative definition 1 are virtually identical. That leaves narrative definition 3 as the only meaning of either term that doesn't have a closely corresponding meaning attached to the other term. But even that definition isn't as clear-cut a point of differentiation as you might think.

As recently as the Sixth Collegiate (1958), narration had three definitions and narrative only two. For narration:

narration n 1. A narrating. 2. A narrative; a story. 3. Discourse, or an example of it, designed to represent a connected succession of happenings, esp., such discourse involving plot, setting, and characterization.

For narrative:

narrative n 1. That which is narrated; an account; a tale; a story. 2. Act, art, or practice of narrating; as, a master of narrative.

Narration 1 is again paired with narrative 2, and narration 2 with narrative 1;but this time the lengthy definition involving representation of a story in discourse or art is assigned to narration instead of to narrative.

The Seventh Collegiate (1965) drops the third definition altogether, leaving the two terms with their two pairs of essentially interchangeable definitions. The third definition of narrative, given in the second block quote above the Eleventh Collegiate, debuts (with identical wording) in the Ninth Collegiate (1989).

All of which is by way of saying that I can see why you might find it difficult to distinguish between the two terms. Still, historically, dictionaries and other resources have attempted to differentiate between them. The Fifth Collegiate (1941), for example, includes this usage note on the related words narrative, narration, account, and recital:

Narrative is commonly applied to that which is narrated; narration, to the act or process of narrating. Account is less formal than narrative; recital commonly implies a somewhat less detailed relation.

S. I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word (1968) is so confident that the "account, tale, story" meaning belongs to narrative and not to narration that it completely omits narration from consideration in a discussion of the group of words narrative, anecdote, legend, myth, saga, story, tale, and yarn.

James Fernald, English Synonyms, Antonyms, and Prepositions (1896) seems far less disposed to distinguish between the two terms:

An anecdote tells briefly some incident, assumed to be fact. If it passes close limits of brevity, it ceases to be an anecdote, and becomes a narrative or narration.

But elsewhere, this book elaborates on the precise meaning of narrative without mentioning narration at all:

A narrative is a somewhat extended and embellished account of events in order of time, ordinarily with a view to please or entertain.

Despite the extensive overlap in meaning between the two terms, I suspect that many people consistently use narrative and narration to refer to different things—namely, narrative to refer to "story or account" and narration to refer to "the act of narrating" (that is, "telling a story").

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