I was looking at the definition of "practical" and found a phrase that I couldn't understand.

The phrase that I'm talking about is

being such in practice or effect

And also, according to the information on the same page, this definition of "practical" is a synonym of the word "virtual". But I couldn't any definition of "virtual" that is same as the definition of "practical" that I was talking about earlier.

  • 3
    I’m voting to close this question because the M-W definition is misquoted. It's being such in practice or effect, not of (i.e. being "practical", either in practice or in effect). That's to say, either virtually or effectively "practical". Jun 13 '21 at 13:41
  • Sorry, I misquoted the original sentence. But still, I don't understand the sentence that I've mentioned.
    – 申の刻
    Jun 13 '21 at 14:10
  • Can you give the full context of that phrase? It may make sense to explain in the full sentence. Also, how is 'practical' a synonym of 'virti ual' (sp?)? They might overlap in some extreme vagueness but on the surface not at all.
    – Mitch
    Jun 13 '21 at 14:27
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    This is an interesting question, but you need to make it easier for us. Edit your question to add the link and give more of the text of M-W. Also, expand your question with what is at 'virtual'. (I think you have found a poor entry by M-W, for both 'practical' and 'virtual': 'practically' and 'virtually' can be synonymous - "Because I just graduated highschool, I am practically/virtually an adult" (the adverb means something like "for all intents and purposes", but the first def of 'practical' is 'nontheoretical', and 'virtual' is 'unreal'.
    – Mitch
    Jun 13 '21 at 15:15
  • 1
    "such" presumably refers to the previous definition (1a), as the quote is numbered 1b. M-W uses this formula a lot where one meaning expands on another.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 14 '21 at 10:20

The such refers to the noun that practical modifies. The word such here cannot be referring to a previous definition, because in the definition of virtual, a very similar definition appears as the first definition of the word.

One definition of practical in Merriam-Webster is:

1 b: being such in practice or effect : VIRTUAL
a practical failure.

So, calling something a practical failure would mean that it was a failure in practice (although maybe it was a success in theory or in trial uses).

The same use of such appears in their definition of virtual:

1: being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted
a virtual dictator

So a virtual dictator is somebody who is effectively a dictator, even though they do not admit they are one.


This is complicated because it involves how words work, how dictionaries work, and how M-W works.

Yes, that phrase all by itself is strange and difficult to parse (if at all). The entire (relevant definition is:

1a: of, relating to, or manifested in practice or action : not theoretical or ideal
   // _a practical question_
   // _for all practical purposes_
 b: _being such in practice or effect_ : VIRTUAL
   // _a practical failure_

As noted in a comment here, 'such' is a pronoun here that M-W uses often to refer to a previous definition, in this instance 1a. Even so, replacing the pronoun with its (simplified) referent, 'being of practice or action in practice or effect' being so tautologous almost washes away any meaning it had to start with. And frankly, the example doesn't help me distinguish the two submeanings.

So I have a very hard time trying to figure out what M-W means with this definition.

I'm no lexicographer so I can only explain what I think the primary meaning, 1a, of 'practical' is - it is opposed to abstract or thinking too far in advance, it means just getting things done now with what's available (as you can see this is not a good dictionary definition but I think it suffices for getting the idea across.

As to definition 1b, that it cites 'virtual' as a synonym is interesting because, well, let's look at M-W's definition there:

1: being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted
  // _a virtual dictator_
4: of, relating to, or being a hypothetical particle whose existence is inferred from indirect evidence
  // _virtual photons_

With my own prejudices about 'virtual', this seems quite at odds with the definition of 'practical'. It's not exactly an antonym, but seems correlated with those ideas.

However, abstract words can be a little bit mushy. I can attempt a possible hint as to why the individual lexicographer connected 'virtual' with 'practical'. Via semantic drifting of the adverbial forms, 'practically' and 'virtually' both have changed little by little over the years to converge to mean 'almost'.

The actor had appeared in so few films lately that they had become practically/virtually unknown.

Despite the same root, this doesn't make 'practical and 'virtual' synonymous though.

  • 1
    Yes; 'It's a practical failure' could be used for 'To all intents and purposes, it's a failure, although I wouldn't because of the ambiguity. It would be used in say 'OK, it's passed the Backhander-Vested utility test, but all that means is that we need a better test.' Jun 14 '21 at 13:29

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