Is there a single word meaning 'separate wheat from chaff'?

The closest I've found is 'winnow' but it doesn't really capture the sentiment.

I'm looking for a word to help describe a person, an educator, who [distills and clarifies] the most valuable core ideas.

Example sentence:

"I've taken the methods presently in use, analyzed them, and am reframing the core wisdom. I've __________ the material."

(Does it seem odd such a word would not be common? Is it because separate, and its synonyms, already imply the reason for division is always about good and bad?)

... CLARIFICATION (10/22/18) ...

The answers given have helped me clarify what I'm after, which is, a word meaning to 'extend and unify' the current canon of theories.

For example, Quantum Mechanics is NOT a distillation of Relativistic Mechanics (Einstein) which was not a distillation of Newtonian Mechanics.

Each subsequent theory was a new, UNIFYING, theory which still accommodated the previous theories.

So that evolution isn't distilling, culling, refining, purifying, etc. but synthesize, but not amalgamate, certainly seems in the right ballpark.

  • In this context it's worth noting that even the dumbest farmer could reliably distinguish literal wheat (grains) from chaff (all the rest of the plant). But for OP's context probably the key concept is that someone separating metaphorical wheat from chaff (important ideas from trivial / irrelevant / unsound ones) should be capable of knowing the difference. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 15:37
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    A word or phrase request can easily attract a long list of answers when it’s too subjective – more of a poll or request for ideas. Unfortunately neither are a good fit for the Stack Exchange model. A Stack Exchange question is objective and specific enough that it has a clearly “right” answer. See: “Real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions”, “Single word requests, crosswords, and the fight against mediocrity”.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 18:07
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    If possible, add more details of research you’ve done, especially solutions you’ve already rejected, and why. Include the desired connotation, register (formality), part of speech, and context in which it is to be used, and provide the exact enclosing sentence or passage. If this is not possible because you really do have a subjective question, a welcoming place to ask for advice is our English Language & Usage Chat.
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    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 18:07
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    – MetaEd
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  • I don't see anything unclear about the question. Voting to reopen.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 18:34

11 Answers 11


There are lots of candidate words, but the appropriate choice of word depends hugely on what is being said about the distribution of the quality of ideas:

  • cull/ filter/ prune/ triage (if some ideas are outright terrible and need to be summarily rejected, e.g. Earth was colonized from the dark side of the moon)
  • sift (if ideas seem plausible, and we need to discern better from worse, more helpful from less)
  • distill/ craft/ develop/ refine/ finesse/ amalgamate/ synthesize (if ideas are ok but need to developed, clarified, articulated better and possibly put together to make a more useful idea
  • select, or its hip cousin curate, say nothing about the wider set of ideas, and merely say you (possibly arbitrarily) picked some to discuss/ focus on/ illustrate
  • similarly separate (/ categorize) e.g. in physics, we can separate ideas in forces and mechanics from ideas in heat and light from ideas in radiation, but that merely says they can be split into different categories, it says nothing about whether some are worse than others, or interconnected or not
  • generalize/ reduce/ condense/ summarize/ canonicalize Perhaps goes beyond your intended scope, but this applies where multiple ideas from the same or different categories are the same fundamental principle

To your second question: "(Does it seem odd such a word would not be common? Is is because separate, and it's synonyms, already imply the reason for division is already, always, about good and bad?)"

That is because there are multiple different candidates, as above. Yes it depends on what the verb implies about quality, if anything, and how much effort the discernment process takes. separate is not necessarily good from bad, it could be simple from complex, advanced from introductory, scalar from vector, general or common from special-case or rare, well-known from little-known etc.


The word I would use is distill:

extract the essential meaning or most important aspects of. –NOAD

Moreover it’s so common and fitting that you yourself used it in your post.

  • Distill doesn't quite do it ... I added clarification ...synthesize seems to be the best candidate. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 15:15

cull vocabulary.com

verb: remove something that has been rejected; look for and gather

noun: the person or thing that is rejected or set aside as inferior in quality

As in:

If you decide to make a literary anthology, you must cull the best possible stories and then arrange them in a pleasing manner.

Though we are encouraged to use our own words to explain answers, I can do no better than to quote my reference:

When you use cull as a verb, the things you gather can be the good or bad ones from a group. In your garden, you can cull the good vegetables for dinner, or the rotten ones for the compost pile. In fact, often no judgment of quality is made, as when you cull information from the Internet for your next research project. The sorting through will come later. However, if you use the word as a noun, a cull is a selection of things you intend to reject, often in reference to a group of animals. An outbreak of a disease such as foot-and-mouth disease can cause authorities to order a cull of farm pigs.

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    Surely 'cull' usually means to select the inferior ones for removal? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 16:05
  • That's a good one. Thank you. Does inculcate derive from that? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 16:30
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    @KateBunting Yep, I thought that's what the question was about, "who distills and clarifies the most valuable core ideas." This is the best answer so far in my opinion. Except that it reminds me of controlling cute animal populations by, you know... Edit: Sorry, no, cull means selecting the best ones, doesn't it? You remove the unwanted ones.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 16:36
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    I'm not sure that "cull" is a good idea, because of the ambiguity. "My manager culled the group's best ideas" -- am I telling you that they're a good manager who combines all the best stuff, or a bumbling idiot who kills all progress? Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 20:23
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    @Zebrafish - I think you misunderstood my comment. I was saying that 'to cull' meant to select poor specimens, as in choosing the weaker animals when it's necessary to reduce their numbers. But on checking the definition I see it can also mean to select good examples of something. Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 20:45

The technical terms are thresh or winnow but I have never heard these used metaphorically. The metaphorical term is separate the wheat from the chaff.

Edit Having looked at other people's suggestions, I see that some suggestions, such as prune, involve taking out the bad bits. Others, such as distil, involve taking out the good bits. Separating the wheat from the chaff involves going through everything and sorting into two piles. It also seems to me that it is more specifically sorting the wanted from the unwanted, rather than making a judgment about good and bad. A typical example would be going through job applications where you go through them sorting into a pile of rejects and a pile that you will invite for interview.

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    I've never heard thresh used metaphorically, but I've often heard (and used) phrases like winnow down the options. So I think this is a good answer even if you don't. :) Commented Oct 21, 2018 at 21:44
  • Our professor refines the curriculum so well that we are able to appreciate its finer points.

Refined (adj.) 1570s, "subtle;" 1580s, "elegant;" 1590s, "purified," past-participle adjective from refine (v.).

Fine (adj.) mid-13c., "unblemished, refined, pure, free of impurities," also "of high quality, choice," from Old French fin "perfected, of highest quality" (12c.), a back-formation from finire or else from Latin finis "that which divides, a boundary, limit, border, end" (see finish (v.)); hence "acme, peak, height," as in finis boni "the highest good." The English word is from c. 1300 as "rich, valuable, costly;" also in a moral sense "true, genuine; faithful, constant." From late 14c. as "expertly fashioned, well or skillfully made," also, of cloth, "delicately wrought." Of weapons or edges, "sharp" from c. 1400. In reference to quality of gold and silver, late 15c.

Online Etymology Dictionary

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    indeed, judging on the OP's sentenced, "Refined" works best in their own example sentence: quote:- "Distills I thought means 'refine' not necessarily separate good from bad. But I admit that's being very picky. "I've taken the methods presently in use, analyzed them, and am reframing the core wisdom. I've __________ the material." " I'd say "Refined" which from its origin is, by its very definition, to remove unwanted material from something.
    – Miller86
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 10:43
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    this is the obvious one +1
    – user172447
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 11:29

I would suggest 'weed out' as being idiomatically metaphorical, yet retaining an agricultural background association.

It is not a single word but it is a phrasal verb.

Weed out (phrasal verb) : to remove (people or things that are not wanted) from a group

Merriam Webster

FCA promises to weed out sexual harassers

FT Adviser - 17th Oct 2018

  • This does essentially fail to meet OP's request for a single word.
    – TylerH
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 15:44

"I've screened the material."

screen (verb)

  • "to examine systematically in order to determine suitability"
    "to sort through and eliminate unwanted examples of (something)"
    "to separate or sift out by means of a sieve or screen." TFD
  • "to examine usually methodically in order to make a separation into different groups"
    "to select or eliminate by a screening process" MW

"They say they are screening all their candidates."
"My secretary screens all my calls."
"Yet this occurred no matter how carefully I screened my applicants, and I screened all of them very carefully. I found that most renters stayed about two years." The Reluctant Landlord


To discriminate seems to fit the bill.

to recognize a distinction; differentiate.

To discriminate between good and bad, or the wheat and the chaff, meets your criteria.

  • Or to discriminate against minorities. Loaded word, beware. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 5:07

I use pruning. I think it's quite versatile and in fact is used by discord to describe kicking out users who are bad or inactive.


Hone, perhaps - To refine or practise (a skill, technique, etc.); to make more effective or intense (OED).


"I've taken the methods presently in use, analyzed them, and am reframing the core wisdom. I've honed the material."


What about extracts? You also used it in your original posts. You usually extract the essentials from something.

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