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While browsing an online dictionary I found many translation for the same word in German. Those are certain, specific and particular.

In my opinion are all three synonyms and can be used interchangeably. Or are there slight differences in the use, especially in different contexts?

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  • In some contexts these words bear overlapping meanings and can be substituted for each other; in other contexts they bear quite different meanings. So if you provide a "specific" context in which your German word is used we can tell you which word reflects the meaning you are looking for; but detailing all the different contexts in which they coincide or differ is really beyond our scope. You might find it helpful to browse around on Linguee, to see the variety of uses. Jun 12, 2015 at 13:13
  • For example: 'Search at www.exaple.com if you need a certain icon.' For the above sentence I looked in the dictionary to double-check the usage (which should be okay). But I was just wondering. In my experience, all three should be fine. Jun 12, 2015 at 13:19
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    In this case either specific or particular would work, but certain would be at best marginal. Certain in this sense is usually used to mean "I have a specific one in mind, but for the moment I'm not going to tell you which one it is." Jun 12, 2015 at 13:28
  • @StoneyB: Absolutely. I don't know if it's a universally understood meaning, but I've always interpreted a woman of a certain age as referring to a menopausal (or feasibly "not-long-post-menopausal") woman. But a woman of a specific/particular age has no specific/particular implications to me - it just means a woman whose age can be or has been exactly specified. Jun 12, 2015 at 15:22

2 Answers 2

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All three words obviously have multiple meanings, but in the context you're taking about, specific and particular are completely interchangeable in every case I can think of.

Certain is slightly more nuanced. It can (but doesn't always) carry a sense of deliberate ambiguity. For example, I'm here looking for a certain person could mean:

  • (neutrally) I'm here looking for a specific person
  • (enigmaticaly) I'm here looking for a specific person, but I'm not going to say who because it's a secret
  • (ironically or humorously) I'm here looking for a specific person, and you know who that is, but I'm not going to mention their name (for example because they and I recently had an argument).

Context and tone would make clear which of these was intended.

Personally, for that reason, I would avoid using certain in the context you're describing. A dictionary will tell you it's correct, but it doesn't feel quite as natural or idiomatic as specific or particular.

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  • Thanks for this response. The examples provide a explanation for the usage in the mentioned contexts. Jun 12, 2015 at 13:41
  • Source, please?
    – Kris
    Jun 12, 2015 at 14:39
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    @Kris Unfortunately, as I alluded to in the final paragraph, I don't have a source for this. I was somewhat emboldened by the fact StoneyB said the same thing, in a briefer form, in a comment on the original post. I thought it would be helpful to the original poster to provide examples based on experience. If you have advice on a better way to proceed in such circumstances, I would certainly be grateful to receive it.
    – Morton
    Jun 12, 2015 at 14:51
  • So there's a good reason why StoneyB posted a comment, rather than an answer :) I don't know of any specific bar on giving educated opinion as an answer anyways.
    – Kris
    Jun 12, 2015 at 14:54
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Good answers... and here's another nuanced difference between "Certain" and the two words "particular" or "specific."

Certain can contain a nuance of "assurance." For example... "I am certain that this is the right answer."

I could not replace "certain" with "specific" or "particular" and it have the same meaning.

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  • Interesting observation and example. Could you show a little research so that someone could follow up if they were interested? Why is this a difference? Dec 27, 2018 at 1:33

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