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Yesterday, I went to my friend's art exhibition and heard people using the word exhibit instead of exhibition. I told him

I like your exhibition

with which I meant that I loved his show and pieces, but later when I heard native speakers using

I love your exhibit, it is amazing

that makes me wonder which is the correct word to use here.

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Hmm, were those people you spoke to Americans?

In American English, Exhibit = Exhibition and they both mean the show of painting, photograph, or other artwork.

  • There were native american english speakers. – Tarik Sep 2 '11 at 16:01
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    I'm American. In American English, it varies somewhat by context. In the context of art, for example, "exhibit" is almost always used over "exhibition." In the context of motor homes, though, it's almost always "exhibition." In other contexts, ones where both are used, an "exhibition" is of grander scale than an "exhibit," like one might find multiple exhibits at an exhibition but never vice versa. Of course, there is overlap, contexts where one person might use "exhibit" and another might use "exhibition," but generally speaking, you can count on an exhibition being bigger than an exhibit. – Benjamin Harman Aug 27 at 17:10
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One obvious difference is that exhibit can also be used as a verb, but exhibition can't.

Although there are contexts where the two words are synonymous as nouns, I think most people would accept "exhibits shown at an exhibition", but not "exhibitions shown at an exhibit".

In short, an exhibit is far more likely to mean a single item being displayed, whereas an exhibition is more likely to be an event where many different things are displayed.

Having said that, this distinction is something of a Briticism. Americans don't use exhibition so often anyway, so for them exhibit tends to have both noun meanings, as well as being a verb.

  • It seems so they looked at me weirdly when I used "Exhibition" and I found this very weird. – Tarik Sep 2 '11 at 17:17
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    @Braveyard: US Usage probably varies by region/social grouping, but I don't think any of them would say, for example, "Don't make an exhibit of yourself – FumbleFingers Sep 2 '11 at 17:32
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AHDEL gives the following definitions of exhibit:

exhibit noun

  1. The act or an instance of exhibiting.

  2. Something exhibited: studied the dinosaur exhibits at the museum.

  3. A public showing; an exhibition: spent the afternoon at the space exhibit.

  4. Law Something, such as a document, formally introduced as evidence in court.

Judging from the third definition, exhibit and exhibition are synonyms, overlapping in OP's sense.

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The simple difference here, to me, is exhibits are items or objects displayed at an exhibition whereas exhibition is the formally organised event at which items are shown for public view at a trade fair or mesium.

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    Hello, Charles. If you read the above answers, you will see that (though I use the words the same way you do) your answer is a personal or regional preference rather than the whole story. The other answers give a truer overall picture of acceptable usages (and one adds authoritative corroboration, which is important). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 16 '15 at 11:10
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Sorry to jump in quite late here. The truth is, in the art world there is indeed a difference between exhibit and exhibition. The distinction lies in scale, a single or few individual pieces are exhibits. While an exhibition is a larger group of items, such as an entire room or wing of a gallery, often connected in theme. So if your friend was showcasing multiple pieces and/or a performance (as seemed implied by your explanation of your use of exhibition) then you were correct to use exhibition.

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    Thanks for your contribution, and welcome to EL&U. I'd love to upvote your answer, but unfortunately the system is likely to flag it for review as a Low Quality Post because it doesn't cite any independent evidence that would distinguish an authoritative answer from a personal opinion. Can you edit your answer to add a published reference? For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour :-) – Reinstate Monica Feb 23 at 7:07
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I am an art historian and encounter this usage problem frequently. An exhibition is an event composed of individual exhibits, usually linked by a single theme. For a usage example one can ask "Do you want to include this exhibit in the exhibition?" Because this usage is open to some debate it is best to always observe this rule to stay on the safe side. Exhibit is also a verb, which is an important distinction. To me, art professionals who confuse exhibit and exhibition look foolish.

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Harry Shaw, Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (1975) has this entry for the two words:

exhibit, exhibition. An exhibit is a display of items or a collection of articles in an exhibition. An exhibition is a large-scale display, such as a fair, an exposition, or an art showing. One or more paintings by one artist might be an exhibit in an exhibition of modern art.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984), which treats exhibition and exhibit as members of a group of kindred nouns that also includes show, exposition, and fair, generally agrees with Shaw:

exhibition, show, exhibit, exposition, fair are comparable when meaning a public display of objects of interest. Exhibition and, less often in strictly formal use except in art circles, show are applicable to any such display of objects of art, manufacture, commerce, or agriculture or to a display (as by pupils, members, or associates) of prowess or skill (as in gymnastics, oratory, or music) {the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts} {an exhibition of Navajo blankets} {a cattle show} {an industrial exhibition} Exhibit typically denotes an object or collection displayed by a single person, group, or organization in an exhibition {our club had a fine exhibit in the school fair} but in some uses it is not clearly distinct from exhibition or show, since the scope of an exhibit may vary from a single object to a collection co-extensive with an exhibition: thus an artist might present a one-man show which would be at once an exhibition and an exhibit of his work.

The confusing thing here is that exhibit can refer to a single item or to multiple items—to the extent of being (as MW puts it) "co-extensive with an exhibition." And since exhibition can refer to "any [public] display of objects of art, manufacture, commerce, or agriculture..." there is, as Philoto's answer suggests, plenty of room for overlapping usage of the two terms.


Consider, for example, the English translation of Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. The suite consists of ten unique movements (as well as a recurring promenade), each dedicated to a different art work by Viktor Hartmann. But the ten art works were displayed as part of a special memorial presentation of more than 400 pieces by Hartmann. A 400-piece presentation of one artist's work certainly qualifies as "a large-scale display" and "an art showing"—Shaw's core definition of exhibition; but it also serves as a good example of a "one-man show which would be at once an exhibition and an exhibit of his work," in MW's formulation. And, of course, the 400-piece memorial art show was also "one or more paintings by one artist," which Shaw characterizes as an exhibit.

One point that neither Shaw nor Merriam-Webster addresses satisfactorily in discussing of the possibility of "an exhibit in an exhibition" is the implicit physical proximity of the "display of items or collection of items" constituting an exhibit in its collective sense. If the ten art works that Mussorgsky focused on in his piano suite appeared as a distinct, coherent subgroup within the larger exhibition, it would be appropriate to refer to them as "an exhibit in the exhibition." But if (as seems far more likely) they were pieces scattered across the 400-piece display that Mussorgsky happened to find especially intriguing, it would seem more proper to characterize them as individual "exhibits in the exhibition."

Thus, arguably, the English translator of the title Pictures at an Exhibition might have translated it with equal technical accuracy as Pictures at an Exhibit, Exhibits at an Exhibition, or even Exhibits at an Exhibit—although not, in this particular case, as Exhibit at an Exhibition.

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