I work in software in a technology field, and hear the word nominal tossed around quite a bit. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding which meaning people are intending. Maybe I have a mental block, but this word really gets me. For example, Dictionary.com gives as many as ten definitions!


  1. being such in name only; so-called; putative: a nominal treaty; the nominal head of the country.

  2. (of a price, consideration, etc.) named as a mere matter of form, being trifling in comparison with the actual value; minimal.

  3. of, relating to, or constituting a name or names.

  4. Grammar. of, relating to, or producing a noun or nouns: a nominal suffix. functioning as or like a noun.

  5. assigned to a person by name: nominal shares of stock.

  6. containing, bearing, or giving a name or names.

  7. (of money, income, or the like) measured in an amount rather than in real value: Nominal wages have risen 50 percent, but real wages are down because of inflation.

  8. Aerospace. performing or achieved within expected, acceptable limits; normal and satisfactory: The mission was nominal throughout.

  9. Slang. done smoothly as expected: The space shot was nominal, proceeding without a hitch.


  1. Grammar. a word or group of words functioning as a noun.

The usage I'm seeing it in right now is “When the system enters this mode, these portions of it are active and power consumption is nominal.

I think the author intended meaning #8 or possibly meaning #2. I'm leaning towards #8.

I can't just ask the author of the paper which meaning they meant, so which would it be?

In the future when I hear someone use the word nominal, I intend to pull out my list of synonyms and ask them which one they mean (if any!).

  • And that's not even all of the meanings. In data science (and especially cartography/GIS) "nominal" means essentially "qualitative". mymarketresearchmethods.com/… – Spencer Dec 23 '16 at 0:53
  • Oxford has synonyms for the two or three most widely used 'versions' of nominal. But the meanings are interrelated. If something is nominal, as in 'being in name only' (say a nominal head of a country), then the use of nominal for 2 follows that one: a nominal amount can be thought of an amount in name only, or a trifle. Someone not really being the head is similar to something not really having much of a cost. More technical uses (8) are like a technical use of any word: generally restricted to that field. – Arm the good guys in America Dec 23 '16 at 0:58
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    Can you give more context with your example, please. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '16 at 2:04
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    @EdwinAshworth The best I can do is paraphrase. So here goes: "When the system enters this mode, these portions of it are active and power consumption is nominal." I know that's not a lot of context, but it's all I can give. – kmort Dec 23 '16 at 6:26
  • I still couldn't assess whether sense 2 or 8 above is intended. I'm still inclined to guess 2, though (nominal = of an insignificant amount; not worth worrying about at all). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '16 at 7:43

"Nominal" as used in engineering typical means pretty much #8 in your list.

That is, if a component is rated as consuming 100 watts, and it is actually consuming something close to that, then the power consumption is nominal. "As named" or "as expected".

  • Aren't the other senses allowed? In maths, for instance, 'difference' retains its everyday meaning as well as the 'mod (A-B)' sense. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '16 at 2:06
  • That's what I thought too, until I thought more about #2. They probably meant #8, but it's not clear. – kmort Dec 23 '16 at 6:28
  • @EdwinAshworth, of course the other senses are allowed, but what the example means is more along the lines of #8. michael.hor257k's answer is perfectly reasonable in other situations, meaning "comparatively little". But as you know, "Context is King". – Cyberherbalist Dec 24 '16 at 14:13
  • I've even known people to make mistakes. Context is often insufficient, and here I'd only go as far as 'there is an 80% probability that sense #8 is intended'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 25 '16 at 9:23

With regard to:

... and power consumption is nominal.

it probably means very small. Although the dictionary definition restricts this meaning to price:

2 (of a price or amount of money) very small; far below the real value or cost : some firms charge only a nominal fee for the service.
New Oxford American Dictionary

it could be extended to cost in fuel consumption.

Of course, without context this is no more than an educated guess.


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