What's the differences between "carton" & "box"? I didn't know which word to choose when using express to send samples.

From the Internet, some say that carton is a smaller box, and some say that cartons are made of paper/boxes can be any kinds of materials. I'm confused if these are correct. Please clarify for my reference.

Thank you!

  • There is no well-defined difference. – Hot Licks Mar 11 '16 at 1:48
  • Hi Hot Licks! If so, why express company have these two options? That's why I felt confused. – Sandra Mar 11 '16 at 1:51
  • 3
    Ask the express company. – Hot Licks Mar 11 '16 at 1:52

Merriam-Webster's first definition for box is 'a rigid typically rectangular container with or without a cover', but 'box' is also commonly used for 'cardboard box', which is probably what you are packing the samples in.

The reason we ever felt compelled to say 'cardboard' before 'box' is that the word actually derives from the box tree, suggesting that boxes are made of wood.

box (n.) Old English box "a wooden container," also the name of a type of shrub, from Late Latin buxis, from Greek pyxis "boxwood box," from pyxos "box tree," which is of uncertain origin.

Carton, on the other hand, derives from a word meaning 'paper':

carton (n.) 1816, from French carton "pasteboard" (17c.), from Italian cartone "pasteboard," augmentative of Medieval Latin carta "paper" (see card (n.)). Originally the material for making paper boxes; extended 1906 to the boxes themselves. As a verb, from 1921.

Dictionary.com defines 'carton' as 'a cardboard or plastic box used typically for storage or shipping'.

So a 'carton' is a type of 'box', but as your own research has shown you, boxes can be made of harder materials than those typically used to make cartons. I wouldn't insist that you use one word or the other, but sometimes the slight difference in their meanings can be useful.

In shipping large quantities of packaged items (smaller boxes) within one large box, you might choose to differentiate between the contents and the container by saying that you are packing a number of cartons (less durable boxes) into a box (suitable for shipping).

  • Thanks Egox. I just sent inquiry to the express company and they told me that "carton" is made of harder paper, like you mentioned above ('carton' as 'a cardboard or plastic box used typically for storage or shipping'). "Box" seems to be ordinary one. : ) – Sandra Mar 11 '16 at 2:54

What's the "express company" you refer to? Having worked in the shipping industry, I've seldom heard the word "carton." Just about everything merchandise is shipped in is called a box (as far as I know).

I think the term carton is often used for boxes or box-like things that are used to display things. That matches one of the definitions offered by Merriam-Webster.

On the other hand, UPS does distinguish between boxes and cartons. FedEx also recognizes a variety of containers, though I don't see "carton" listed.

However, the most familiar "cartons" are probably the light cardboard "boxes" milk and eggs are commonly packaged in.

Wikipedia has an article about cartons.

  • Hi David, it is TNT express. I think that "carton" refers to s smaller box and maybe it has different meanings in different regions? – Sandra Mar 11 '16 at 2:43
  • Well, it's certainly confusing. ;) – David Blomstrom Mar 11 '16 at 3:13

I think carton means the cardboard before it is made into a box.the cardboard comes flat and then a person or machine forms it into a box

  • This is not true. A carton is a complete box and is not necessarily made from cardboard. – Chenmunka Apr 12 '17 at 9:44

I work in the packaging world. Cartons of milk come in a case. Cartons can be decorated for point of purchase or not. They don't have the squiggly material that defines cardboard. Cases are usually made from cardboard. Sometimes wood. never paperboard.

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