I am sure we all have heard, at some point, someone saying, 'I have a theory about X. I think....'. Since I am Masters' student, I now know very well that a theory is a system of ideas that has been verified systematically (/experimentally) to be an explanation of some phenomenon, like the theory of gravitation. Therefore, the word should not be used so loosely as is done in popular culture today.

I realize that this meaning of theory, as 'an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action' is recognized, but especially when talking in a scientific context, it seems somewhat inappropriate to use it with that meaning - since I am using also that word for meaning something far more specific. Also, the fact that there are dozens of websites claiming this use to be somewhat incorrect, has some significance.

Moreover, Merriam-Webster notes -

However, there are two senses of theory which are sometimes troublesome. These are the senses which are defined as “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena” and “an unproven assumption; conjecture.”

So my question is, what would be a better replacement, in a situation where someone is trying to pose his/her "theory" about something? I was initially thinking using idea, but it lacks the sense that it's supposed to be an explanation. I was also thinking something like hypothesis or conjecture, but I wasn't sure.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 21 '17 at 3:26

The word theory has multiple meanings. There is the common usage which means, as you suggest, hypothesis or conjecture and there is the scientific definition which means "that's the fact, Jack."

I always use hypothesis precisely because of this so as to avoid any confusion (and am trying to teach my kids to do the same.)


Hypothesis is good for more formal situations, as Roger Siashon says. A hypothesis is something that may become or form the basis of a theory if it's verified via measurement.

Less formally, you could use: idea or even suspicion (if you're really uncertain about it) interchangeably in your example.

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    thanks Benjamin, but i feel that idea/suspicion does not have the sense of explanation, as in I think X could explain this situation at hand. what do you think? – user1993 May 17 '17 at 6:40
  • You're right for some cases. I'd put suspicion, idea, and theory on a spectrum of less sure/less detailed to more sure/more detailed. For some specific cases - where I'm proposing a way of explaining/modelling something - I often find myself using 'pattern' or 'model', as in "If we model this as a set of x's" .This suggests that it's a useful explanation as rather than attempting to be a complete explanation. This is in a software setting though - may or may not be useful to you. – Beejamin May 17 '17 at 6:57

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