Today one of my students gave me some writing as part of her preparation for a Cambridge Proficiency exam.

She was describing how after she'd moved away to go to university she'd temporarily lost touch with a friend, Maria, whom she'd gone to school with, and had lived in the same town as, for many years. Her friend had had a very bad time after a relationship break-up in the intervening period.

She explained how her friend eventually told her that she had felt:

"we were too distant (and not only in the geographical meaning) ..."

Now it's clear that the word sense would have been better for this student's needs here (please bear in mind the very, very high level of this exam). Exactly why is sense better than meaning here?

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    "Sense" would have been better, though it's not clear that there's anything technically wrong with "meaning". (Also, "with" tends to be used with "meaning" the same way "in" is used with "sense", but I don't believe there's any hard rule that demands that.)
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 5, 2016 at 22:10
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    I think sense sounds better too, but I don't think there's any reason you -couldn't- use meaning. I think it just looks weird because it's not the word people would normally put there. Feb 5, 2016 at 22:13
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    I'm basically in the same camp as Hot Licks; whatever teaching I've had in English has kind of instilled in me that we have things "in the sense of" X or "with the meaning of" Y. If I had to try to form some kind of justification around it, pretty much all I have is that meaning is less personal when you think about it. It's a word that's more about the concept of something rather than how it's interpreted. Sense to me is more about what people think it to be rather than what it -is-. So for meaning, we use the instrumental as it's more something we work "with" rather than "in". Feb 5, 2016 at 22:21
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    Instead of "geographical meaning" I'd suggest literal sense.
    – TimR
    Feb 5, 2016 at 23:17
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    @Araucaria: the dinner bell has run here, but in the meantime: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Feb 5, 2016 at 23:28

8 Answers 8


Throwing caution to the wind, and speaking to a British exam question in an American voice, I'll suggest that perhaps sense, which I agree would have been a more felicitous choice, invites the reader to a connotative understanding, whereas meaning calls up a more objective decoding of the word.

Sense, after all denotes perception in a variety of modes: eye, ear, nose, tongue and touch, privatim et seriatim - as well as in concatenation. Sense implies the right-brain, intuitive process - just as the 18th/19th C notion of 'sensibility' implied a balanced blend of sentiment and reason. Where others may look to,lexicography, I turn to Pope: sense is aligned with art.

Meaning, on the other hand, seems to me to spring from the left-brain realm of objectivity. Pope has no place in a quest for meaning, which is to be found in the company of Murray, Webster et. als.

As you say, it's the sort of fine distiction that discriminates among responses at the highest level. As a reader of high-stakes, high-level exam papers, I admire the distinction made in this case.

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    Could you expand on connotative there. I kind of agree, but can't put my finger on how to explain that connotative to this student in relation to this example. Want to give you an appreciative upvote - but would also appreciate some expansion! :) Feb 5, 2016 at 22:36
  • This is how I see it as well. If no one has welcomed you to the site yet (though at a rep of 405, I would doubt that), please let me do so. The answers I've encountered have been refreshing. Welcome to EL&U! (The fact that you referred to my native language - French Canadian - as maybe-not-French was just icing on the cake.) Feb 6, 2016 at 0:40
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    @medica- Merci! Dis donc, It's good to know another who has tasted poutine! ;-)
    – Rob_Ster
    Feb 6, 2016 at 1:13

Sense is better because it is not meaning that is meant here, as blunt as this sounds.

I would not object to "... (and not only by its geographical meaning)", I would regard it as a deliberate style decision, as sort of contrast to more common "... (and not only in the geographical sense)". Observe the change "the" to "its". "Its" is focusing on distant more accurately and is far less cold than the. It is giving a personal edge.

Meaning is for the most part of its usage technical, while in this segment the student is talking about emotional surroundings. That is one side of the story.

Another side is the fact that we are talking about ambiguity. We want to express that this usage does not have (only) its literal meaning. Since the ambiguity is a target, sense contains sufficient associative material to express it.

Third is that meaning does not go well with the preposition in. More common is with or by. However, once you try with, it does not fit the remaining structure of the sentence well.

Fourth is that meaning goes structurally well with have as a direct object. Typically, a word has this meaning. Typically, a word does not have this sense, it can be taken or understood in this or that sense. In the sentence, it is suggested that a word should not be understood by its literal meaning, in its literal sense.

Fifth is similar to what we have said already, there is "not only", so the author wants to combine two or more meanings. In order to do that you need the associative field of emotion, taste and from there sense.

Sixth, another word is calling for sense, it is distant. Distant has a similar overlap with its mathematical part as sense has with meaning. Once you employ sense, distant is immediately getting into its non-mathematical association field, you simply read it that way.

Seventh, the author is already using quite a technical term "geographical". Together with meaning it all becomes quite dissonant for the emotional intentions. It is not that dissonance is bad, it is that the structure becomes unbalanced, it sounds like an error.

Eighth, the author is using the, the geographical meaning, which is making this part cold as a stone.

From all the above, I would not say that sense is better, I would say that it is incorrect not to use it.

All in all, I would consider this usage above the suggested optional. Although a lot of people are going to object the segment for different reasons, feelings or simple expectations, I think that most of them will find at least one of the listed reasons plausible.

  • (4) 65 000 Google hits for "word has this sense", and I'm quite happy with the phrasing. Feb 5, 2016 at 23:04
  • 'Typically, a word does not have this sense' is misleading at best. Feb 5, 2016 at 23:31
  • @AlexPeter - +1 for your edit that changes 'the' to 'its'. Can I suggest that you make this point at the start (and not at the end!) of your answer. It elegantly makes 'geographical' one among several 'senses of distance'. Clearly the OP's intent.
    – Dan
    Feb 6, 2016 at 9:04
  • My upvote is mainly for "meaning does not go well with the preposition in". To me that's the bottom line here. We can nit-pick over whether in the sense is "better" than with the meaning in any given context, but that's just fine detail. Feb 6, 2016 at 13:51

Stripping away inessentials, and reversing the claim (use 'non-geographical' or 'metaphorical' if this is a concern):

We were too distant (in the geographical meaning).

is infelicitous and unidiomatic. 'Meaning' refers almost inescapably to the word 'distant' here, and 'with' rather than 'in' is required.

We were too distant (in the geographical sense).

is logically acceptable and idiomatic. It might be analysed as the parenthetical modifying the whole main clause (... in the sense that ... is idiomatic), or as a deletion of 'We were too distant (using the word in the geographical sense).'

I agree with FumbleFingers that the base issue is the collocation accepted as idiomatic: 'in the X sense', not 'in the X meaning' (and never 'in the X polyseme').

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    I'd originally thought this too. But it seemed to me that "with the geographical meaning" didn't quite work either ... It seems to me that "with" should work with meaning, so I'm not entirely sure about the prepositition being the only thing. +1 for a clear helpful answer (even of I don't feel quite equipped yet to properly help my student). Feb 5, 2016 at 23:09
  • You could make more precise with "We were too distant ('distant' with the metaphorical meaning)." Or you could refer to these Google Ngrams. Feb 5, 2016 at 23:11
  • That might work, although the piece of writing is quite lyrical, and then there's the not only in her original, which seems quite a nice turn to me ... (partly because it works on both planes) Feb 5, 2016 at 23:15
  • @EdwinAshworth - I cannot easily understand geographical sense. In this context the usage you give suggests that there are other geographical meanings for distance than the (obvious) metres and kilometres. Even if there are, don't you think the OP is meaning to refer to a sense of distance? Geographic meaning is clear and correct.
    – Dan
    Feb 5, 2016 at 23:58
  • @Dan I explained that I was changing OP's example to get to the root issue. I'll stick to the original: "[W]e were too distant (and not only in the geographical sense [but also in the metaphorical, relationship sense]) ..." Replacing 'sense' with 'meaning' would not work for me here, but as OP is asking why not, I modified OP's sentence. Feb 6, 2016 at 20:25

I think most of the answers here (which I have upvoted) cover it. Sense has a connotation that meaning does not.


a feeling that something is the case. synonyms: feeling, awareness, sensation, consciousness, recognition

The person is dealing with distance as an emotion, not a number of miles, and sense carries the connotation of feelings, yet meets the requirement of distinction. It is intuitively more appropriate, then, when dealing with feelings, and more than meets the need of meaning.

  • I agree that the OP is '... dealing with distance as an emotion...'. Surely then the 'sense(s) of distance' is intended, not the 'geographical sense of distance' (which actually is a relatively straightforward measure, and in this context better described as the 'geographical meaning of distance'.
    – Dan
    Feb 6, 2016 at 8:32

In English, when speakers want to point out a specific meaning of a word when using it more than one way, they say: in the x sense of the word. So:

We were too distant (and not only in the geographical sense of the word) ..."

In a dictionary, a word can have several meanings, but the idiomatic expression is: sense of the word.


An interesting question, that has inspired much thought in my quater.

To my mind and ear; Sense refers to that which we intuit, implying a deeper context, one other than that of physical distance; The closeness of friendship, or other, relates to the intimacy of human contact. Where as meaning; when we consider the etymological root; refers to the physical distance, a "mean" value, that of an average. Thus a meaning is the most commonly persevered assumption, and a means is thought of as being a standard way; A means to an end. Considered then in this light; we can see and even feel where all the intimacy of sense has gone.

It is also worthy of note that the OP may also have been speaking of the nature of the relationship that had ended; this is not very clear in the information with which we are provided. The way in which the entire question is framed and understood changes; This displays to us the difference between sense and meaning, within the very context of the question.

Never the less, I conclude that the OP is making the emotional aspect stand out; Thus Sense is better than meaning due to the nature of the situation at hand; In which She implies an inscrutable distances from her shoulder; upon which she would have cried in the past.

Those who are less emotive, may well interpret the post differently ...

  • I agree, but I'm not clear whether you think it makes sense for the OP to say 'in the geographical meaning' or 'in the geographical sense'? Since the OP is concerned with 'senses of distance', saying '...*the geographical sense*' in this context is needlessly confusing. Better, surely to attach 'sense' to 'distance' and reserve 'meaning' for 'geographical'.
    – Dan
    Feb 6, 2016 at 8:51
  • Perhaps this depends upon ones natural sensibilities; we are all very different in this regard. One can, in my experience, have very much a geographical sense; This is that which makes a good navigator, a hunter or perhaps even a mathematician. To use "meaning" in this context, to me feels wrong, however; I would learn a lot about one who so chooses to use it, upon listening to them, is this then intuitable to character? To my mind there is no right or wrong in this matter. I wonder, could this be a device to employ when writing; to give character to a character?
    – iain
    Feb 6, 2016 at 9:07
  • Yees..., but do you think the OP is intending to make 'senses of geography' the focus, or 'senses of distance' (these are not the same thing).
    – Dan
    Feb 6, 2016 at 9:21
  • The OP is making the emotional aspect stand out; sense is better than meaning due to the nature of the situation at hand; implying an inscrutable distances form her shoulder upon which to cry. I should perhaps add this thought, to my original post; it is rather more concise?
    – iain
    Feb 6, 2016 at 10:43
  • No. Connotations of intuition are not involved to a degree worth mentioning. It's as FF says: ' ["M]eaning" does not go well with the preposition "in". To me that's the bottom line here.' Feb 7, 2016 at 1:44

"we were too distant (and not only in the geographical meaning) ..."

I think the usage of 'meaning' in the OP is right, although the sentence is flawed. The geographical meaning (i.e. definition) of distance is the distance between two points. It expresses itself in terms of metres, kilometres, feet, yards and miles. Geographically-speaking 'distance' can be measured, more or less precisely. The OP uses meaning clearly and correctly.

The problem is that the quote seems to be saying that the two people were distant from each other in ways besides the geographical meaning of the word. Distance may be 'sensed' in many ways, not all of them universally understood or acknowledged. The additional possibilities for their distance apart - emotional, financial, creative ... - are the reason why the word 'sense' seems necessary in this phrase. Precisely because their 'distance' apart is hard to define and nebulous it seems apposite to 'sense' this distance.

It is not helpful, in this context, to insist that 'meaning' often comes close to having the same meaning as 'sense'. The author seems to be wanting to highlight the other types of distance between her and her friend. It might help if the sentence were reworked so that the senses of distance, besides geographical, can be made more obvious.

For my money, I would keep '...geographical meaning' in the OP as it stands. 'Geographical sense' takes me to another place entirely - geographic sensibilities and their love of Pisgah eminences, synoptic visions and patterns at various scales. Almost certainly not what the author had in mind.

  • The 'geographical' or literal meaning/sense of 'distance' is 'how many cm/inches/miles etc?' The metaphorical, non-geographical sense/meaning is 'how close is our relationship?' 'Sense' is not connected with emotions at all here; it is the 'polyseme' ... erm ... sense. Feb 6, 2016 at 20:35

A word has one or more meanings aka definitions. These are the explanations of the various senses a word can have when it is used. When a word is actually put to use in a statement or predication, it has a sense. A word's sense refers to its meaning-in-context, its meaning-as-used. A word's sense refers to which of its definitions applies in context. In other words, the sense refers to which one of its several possible meaning-roles the word has in the utterance.

Thus, we do not say this

no Class, who can tell me the sense of the word radiate?

but this

yes Class, who can give me the meanings or the definitions of the word radiate?

And we do not say this

no Class, in what definition or in what meaning is the word "radiate" used in "The streets radiated from a central park."

but this

yes Class, in what sense is the word "radiate" used in "The streets radiated from a central park."

The answer might be The word "radiate" is used in its geometric sense, that is, of shooting straight out like a ray from a central point.

It is not idiomatic to say

no I am using the word "radiate" in its geometric meaning (or in its geometric definition)

because in in this usage wants a role or capacity as complement.

  • The use of definition in your penultimate example is, at least, non-idiomatic, but I see no problem with the use of meaning there (other than the in/with thing). After all, meaning had multiple meanings.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 6, 2016 at 13:27

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