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What is the difference between “purpose”, “aim”, “target”, “goal”, “objective”, and “ambition”?

I found these questions:

But I still do not understand: which word should I choose in what circumstances? I would like to see a generalized rule to select one of the six options.

  • I would recommend a good dictionary, some hot towels, and a cup of cocoa; always bearing in mind that success is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration! – WS2 Aug 5 '14 at 17:58
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    What's the aim of your question? For what purpose do you require an answer? Is your goal merely to ask a question? If you choose an answer, does that achieve your objective? Does it hit the target? In the grand scheme of life, what's your ambition? – SrJoven Aug 5 '14 at 18:21
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These words are pretty similar and have only subtle differences and in spoken language many people might not be careful enough to use each of the words correctly. However I think the explanation from Longman Activator Thesaurus is quite helpful:

purpose: what you want to achieve when you do something; the reason you do or plan something, and the thing you want to achieve when you do it: The games have an educational purpose.

aim: something you hope to achieve by doing something: The main aim of the plan was to provide employment for local people.

goal: something important that you hope to achieve in the future, even though it may take a long time: The country can still achieve its goal of reducing poverty by a third.

target: the exact result that a person or organization intends to achieve by doing something, often the amount of money they want to get; a particular amount or total that you want to achieve: The company is on track to meet its target of increasing profits by 10%.

objective: the specific thing that you are trying to achieve - used especially about things that have been officially discussed and agreed upon in business, politics, etc. and agreed upon in business, politics, etc.: Their main objective is to halt the flow of drugs. | We met to set the business objectives for the coming year.

ambition: something that you very much want to achieve in your future career: Her ambition was to go to law school and become an attorney. | Earlier this year, he achieved his ambition of competing in the Olympic Games.

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The reasons that I explore such a question is to help people in organisations cut through the verbiage of 'management' books that cover these terms.

The difficulty that I have with the 'answer' given here is that the referents (rather than definitions) given for each word can be interchanged and still hold the same general meaning. Purpose, aim, goal &c are all "something that you want to achieve when you do something: "One purpose of the games / one aim of the games / one objective... is to have an educational purpose." For me: an "aim" is a broad statement of intent: to provide employment... / to reduce poverty / to increase profits / to halt the flow of drugs &c. (It may be likened to a wish, a prayer or a hope.) E.g. "I am going to learn to drive"

a "goal" is a slightly more detailed statement: to increase employment to 90% / to reduce poverty by 1/3 / to increase profits by 10% / to halt the flow of drugs to juveniles &c. E.g. I am going to learn to drive a car as soon as possible."

an "objective" is a PRECISE (unambiguous) statement of a set of REALISTIC and MEASURABLE targets to be achieved. E.g. "I am going to go to the ABC school of motoring tomorrow morning and sign on for a set of lessons costing not more than £250 with a view to passing my test within one month of starting the lessons." This has [Measurable] targets of Quality (pass the test); Quantity (set of lessons / 1 test) Time (tomorrow, AM / 1 month) and Cost (£250) it is KNOWN, UNDERSTOOD and ACCEPTED by the person involved and so it meets the PRAMKU test for an objective.

"Purpose" seems to relate more to the broader reason for existing E.g within which Aim &c are the statements indicating how this is to be achieved. " "Ambition" seems to relate to a personal aspiration E.g. My ambition is to be a Rock Star"

  • Your understanding of the meanings conveyed by the words is sound, but it's your understanding. In the way they are generally used, there is considerable overlap in the 'meaning' conveyed by them When my trainee teachers wrote lesson plans, they knew exactly how to word their aims and objectives, and would be corrected if they use these words inappropriately. However, outside the context of the training course, they (and I) used the words with wider ranges of meaning, completely appropriately. One can define them precisely only in specified contexts, such as a management book. – tunny Nov 5 '14 at 12:38
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I have seen many attempts to differentiate between the terms aim, goal, target and objective, none of them very convincing. The meaning of terms in the English language derives primarily from usage and not (as in other European languages with which I am familiar) from definitions. As someone already pointed out in a previous answer these terms are used interchangeably; that being the case it is somewhat pointless trying to make a sharp distinction between them. The term purpose is somewhat different because it really addresses the question 'why' as opposed to simply 'what' and it assumes a shared set of values. Ambition too is different in as much as it qualifies a person, it refers to something someone might or does want, desire, wish. It is true that in most cases it implies a goal or a set of goals (aims, targets, objectives) but it can also be very vague, lacking specificity e.g. my ambition is to do whatever I can, as best as I can to help those in need. rcml

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    Hi rcml, and welcome to ELU. This reflects your feelings about the question, which is not exactly an answer. This is a question ans answer site, not a forum for further discussion. Citing references to support your position would make this a better answer; otherwise this can be seen as just your opinion. Since you're here, please have a look at Since you're here, please have a look at the site tour and visit the help center for guidance on how to use this site. – anongoodnurse Dec 9 '14 at 16:45

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