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Linear adjective

  • arranged in or extending along a straight or nearly straight line: linear arrangements | linear in shape | linear movement.

  • consisting of or predominantly formed using lines or outlines: simple linear designs.

  • involving one dimension only: linear elasticity.

  • Mathematics able to be represented by a straight line on a graph; involving or exhibiting directly proportional change in two related quantities: linear functions | linear relationship.

If I refer to twenty linear miles, do those twenty miles need to be all in one straight line? Or does twenty linear miles simply mean twenty miles of length, whatever the route, as opposed to twenty square miles?

If linear describes the miles, collectively, it should all be in one straight line, but linear could also refer to each individual mile, like a linear foot.

The phrase may be ambiguous, but what's the primary interpretation?

Edit after first close vote:

If a twenty-mile long line is not straight, can you call it twenty linear miles?

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    Could you provide the original text in context? – michael.hor257k May 22 '17 at 17:52
  • Normally an expression such as "ten linear miles" simply would not be used. – Hot Licks May 22 '17 at 23:55
  • @HotLicks Thank you thank you thank you. Really I just wanted that validation – Unrelated May 22 '17 at 23:59
  • I'd suggest that the road between the two points in question may be far longer due to twists, turns, inconvenient mountains or rivers, but it is ten miles "as the crow flies" – Magoo May 23 '17 at 2:10
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It is, in fact, ambiguous. The term linear [unit] is most often used to distinguish from square [unit], and most often refers to things that are already straight. For example:

Linear footage is a measure of length, 1 foot is 1 linear foot. Linear footage measurements do require a straight line measurement. Lumber, fencing, and fabrics are commonly sold by the linear foot.
"How to calculate linear feet", InchCalculator.com

However, as is implied by the usage above, a total linear measurement amount can aggregate several individual measurements; for example, if you were building three shelves that were each four feet long, you would need twelve linear feet of shelving.

Linear miles is subject to similar ambiguity. It can mean X miles-in-a-straight-line:

The Middle 1 Route (68.73 miles, or 110.6 km long) will cross 8 linear miles (12.9 km) of sensitive biological habitat
Northwest Regional Power Facility (NRPF), Near the Town of Creston: Environmental Impact Statement, 1996

Here, we are told that the Route is 68.73 miles long, so the only possible interpretation of it crossing "8 linear miles" is that this is a measurement, in a straight line, across the total terrain covered.

However, it can also mean X miles-if-you-stretched-all-the-measurements-into-a-straight-line. For example:

The Storm Water Division oversees the maintenance and repair operations of approximately 500 linear miles of storm water drainage systems within the City of Green.
"Storm Water Management", City of Green, Ohio, 2014

Here, unless the City of Green is absolutely enormous, and all on one long, straight street, the 500 linear miles must be an amalgamation of the many twists and turns of sewer pipes and ditches that make up the city's storm water drainage system.

Unfortunately, this means that there isn't an easy way to know what is meant by linear miles; it just has to be determined from context, and careful writers should include an explanation of how they are using the term.

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  • Middle 1 Route: if it were a straight line presumably the author would have used those words. "Eight miles of Middle 1 Route crosses..." might have been better. – Peter Wone May 22 '17 at 23:35
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Other answers give the meaning of the linear in linear miles, but with these explanations, they are missing the explanation why one would use an apparently redundant expression. After all, a mile is a length or distance, which is measured in a single dimension.

When you encounter something that is normally referred to by its size in some number of dimensions, it is common practice to be emphatic when another measurement is also discussed involving a different number of dimensions.

Therefore:

  • Your brick wall may span 200 feet, and you might need 9 yards of concrete to build it. Unless you are doing this every day for a living, you might not know that's 9 cubic yards and 200 linear feet, which might give you a wall of 1800 square feet.
  • You might buy firewood in cubic feet, but you would buy fence posts in linear feet (once you have settled on the other dimensions).
  • A wildlife preserve may cover 100 square miles, but the road through it covers 10 linear miles. Of little interest may be the fact that the road takes up less than 1 square mile.

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