Is there a difference between "note-taking" & "notation" when referring to the process of writing notes? I've read the dictionary definitions and I'm still not clear on it.

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    Yes, a big difference. Note-taking/Taking notes is just, well, writing down notes -- an activity. Notation, on the other hand, is an abstract system of signs, like mathematical notation or logical notation. – John Lawler Sep 28 '14 at 15:56
  • @JohnLawler It seems like the terms are often used interchangeably though. – timothy.s.lau Sep 28 '14 at 15:57
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    My guess would be that speakers who've only heard them pronounced with some non-English accents might well confuse them. But I've never seen them confused in writing. On the other hand, I'm a native American speaker. – John Lawler Sep 28 '14 at 16:01
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    What @JohnLawler said. The (uncommon) verb notate does, like the verb note mean to write something down. So there is a sense in which notation can refer to writing something down. But when people use the word notation they typically mean a particular system or convention of writing (see JL's comment). – Drew Sep 28 '14 at 16:27
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    @John: Perhaps influenced by the Tower of Babel myth, I'm firmly in the "Universal language? Bring it on!" camp. Also perhaps influenced by the fact that since Esperanto clearly isn't going anywhere, I already speak the hot favourite for the role. But looking at your link (and especially, this Wikipedia page) reminds me why it's worth hanging on to languages (even when sometimes no-one wants them to be the "mother tongue" of their offspring). – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '14 at 18:47

This question borders on general reference, I think, except that (1) note-taking doesn't show up in many dictionaries, and (2) both note and notation have multiple definitions to wade through, and some of those definitions overlap. First, let's look at the definition of note-taking in Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1986):

note-taking n the act or process of taking notes

Here it seems probable that the "notes" in question involve one or the other of the following meanings of note (from the same source):

note n ... 3 b (1) : a brief writing intended to assist the memory or to serve s the basis for a fuller statement . MINUTE : MEMORANDUM {made a note on a piece of paper —Barnaby Conrad} (2) : a condensed record of a speech, lecture, lesson, or discussion made at the time made at the time of listening {takes extensive notes in all his classes}

In contrast, notation in many instances refers to "a system of characters, symbols, or abbreviated expressions" or to the act, process, [or] method of representing" in such a system (again I'm quoting from MW's TNID).

What complicates this seemingly straightforward picture is that notation can also mean something very much like note definition 3b(1) or 3b(2). The relevant TNID definitions:

notation n ... 2 a : ANNOTATION, NOTE {damage, according to the constable's notations, consisted of broken front bumper —Richard Joseph} {if a letter refers to an enclosure, add the appropriate notation to the closing lines —D.D. Lessenberry & T.J. Crawford} b : an act of noting : OBSERVATION ... 5 The act or an instance of recording (as natural appearances or states of mind) through artistic or literary means ... {the whole purport of literature ... is the notation of the heart —Thornton Wilder}

It follows that, in actual practice, "note-taking" and "making notations" can sometimes be very difficult acts or processes to tell apart.

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