I recently went for a hike up a gorge and then down a ravine. What is the difference between a gorge and a ravine? And how does canyon fit in?

My impression was that there was an implied scale, where a ravine is smaller than a gorge, which is smaller than a canyon.

All of these geographical features seem to be created in the same way: a river or stream eroding hard rocky material, giving steep sides.

Looking at Wikipedia, there are entries for both "ravine" and "canyon". "Gorge" redirects to "canyon". It seems to imply that all three words can be used interchangeably. But are there some technical differences between these words to inform their usage?

Edit: adding definitions

Oxford Living English dictionary definitions: (edit: thanks Mitch)

gorge: A narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.

ravine: A deep, narrow gorge with steep sides.

canyon: A deep gorge, typically one with a river flowing through it, as found in North America.

gully: (1) A ravine formed by the action of water; or (2) A deep artificial channel serving as a gutter or drain.

Cambridge English dictionary:

gorge: a deep, narrow valley with steep sides, usually formed by a river or stream cutting through hard rock

ravine: a deep narrow valley with steep sides

canyon: a large valley with very steep sides and usually a river flowing along the bottom

gully: (1) a narrow valley or channel with steep sides, made by a fast-flowing stream; or (2) an artificial channel that is used to get rid of water that is not wanted

Merriam-Webster English dictionary:

gorge: a narrow passage through land especially: a narrow steep-walled canyon or part of a canyon

ravine: a small narrow steep-sided valley that is larger than a gully and smaller than a canyon and that is usually worn by running water

canyon: a deep narrow valley with steep sides and often with a stream flowing through it

gully: (1) a trench which was originally worn in the earth by running water and through which water often runs after rains; or (2) a small valley or gulch

The definition of canyon from Cambridge seems to fit the best, considering the large size of the Grand Canyon, or Fish River Canyon. Merriam-Webster seems to agree that a ravine is smaller than a canyon, and also seems to define gorge as a smaller canyon. Overall, given these definitions, I would use canyon for the largest land-forms, and gully for the smallest ones. Gorge and ravine seem like they could be used interchangeably.

  • 1
  • 1
    Hi Jim, how did a reputable online dictionary define each of the words? What differences did you notice? Wikipedia is full of interesting information but it's not a dictionary. Please edit your post to include the research you've done on the definitions of the words, and let us know if there's still an issue we need to resolve. :-) Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 7:47
  • @Chappo Thanks for the guidance, I've updated the question with definitions and given my understanding of those definitions at the bottom. I had seen that post on ELL but was hoping for a more precise technical definition (if one existed). My hope is for some reference to a geography textbook style definition if it exists. This question arose from coming across a gorge and ravine in one day, and wondering what the distinguishing factors might have been :)
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 17:24
  • 2
    Note that you have not quoted from the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary but instead Oxford Living Dictionaries. These two are related by using the same city in the UK in their titles, but the definition sources are from an entirely different set of lexicographers and editing principles.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 18:02
  • 3
    Understand that, while there is some implication of differing scale attached to the words, a lot depends on local terrain. What might be called a canyon in some parts of the country would likely be called a ditch in others.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 18:06

1 Answer 1

  • Words aren't computer programs. They aren't exactly specified. There's a lot of room for slight differences. Pebble, stone, rock. Honesty, integrity, fidelity. Kingly, royal, regal.

  • There are no exact synonyms, but you can often replace one word for another and get by.

  • Definitions of words are not the words themselves. They are attempts at capturing how to use words, but you can't, as you can in math, replace a word with its definition and have everything work out as intended.

  • Lexicographers are highly knowledgeable about the nuances of words, but they are constrained by page space (or nowadays by reader attention) to limit the number of words in a definition.

  • Also, 'canyon' is a borrowing from Spanish into English and is common in the southwest US (like 'arroyo').

  • All that said, I share your vague perception that a canyon is bigger than a gorge which is bigger than a ravine (which is bigger than a gulley). I feel like a river goes through a canyon, a small river or stream through a gorge, a creek or brook through a ravine, and a gulley is often barely a stream to dry.

  • All that said, each of these words may have very specific technical definitions for use by geo-morphologists, possibly involving wall steepness/height/complexity (smooth vs jagged), volume of water, length, surrounding geology, etc. This may lead to things being called one thing in a gazette but called by scientists one of the others. (i.e. the Three Gorges on the Yangtze may be considered a canyon technically).

There are online glossaries or geomorphology. One gives

It gives for your desired terms the following:

  • Gorge A steep-sided, narrow floored valley cut into bedrock

  • Ravine - strangely, not defined but used multiple times for versions of ravine

  • Canyon A deeply incised, steep-sided river valley

  • Gully A small hollow or channel incised into sediments or unconsolidated rock by running water

For a very specified definition:

  • Arroyo - Incised valley bottom, particularly in the western U.S. The arroyos can be cut as deeply as 20m, be over 50m wide and tens or even hundreds of kilometres long

There are all sorts of words for different scales and topologies of watershed areas: gulch, hollow, couloir, valley, coombe (or cwm for word-nerds) and on and on.

Note that these technical definitions are not as interreferenced as the informal definitions given by the dictionaries. I find the dictionary definitions you found to be somewhat unsatisfactory in comparison because of them each referring to the other.

  • Thanks a lot for the reference to the geomorphology glossary, I had tried to find something like that. Funnily enough, when I asked a geography teacher about this, they mentioned that they thought ravine might be an informal term, so maybe that's why it doesn't appear in the geomorphology glossary.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 9:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.