1

What is the correct way to describe distances? Are two lines of 'two meters' the same 'distance' or twos separate 'equal' distances? If two points are in the same place do I have a 'distance of 0 meters' and hence a 'distance' or do I have 'no distance' between them? I'd generally say that I have a distance of '0 meters' in technical language, but I need the correct natural way to convey this to non-technical users.

6
  • 3
    Two lines are of the same length.
    – Jim
    Apr 20 at 10:25
  • Yes, as Jim implies, we usually choose 'length' for the measure. 'Its weight [/mass, usually, being precise but not colloquial] is two tonnes' / 'Her height is 178 cm' / 'The exam's duration is 3h' / 'The line [segment]'s length is 2m'. And the two points are coincident (there's no non-technical way to talk about points in space). Apr 20 at 10:46
  • 2
    Can you provide full sentences to illustrate your questions? A phrase like "distance of 0 metres" might be OK in some contexts (e.g. on a sat-nav display) but maybe isn't so suitable in formal written English.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 20 at 13:52
  • @EdwinAshworth "The exam's duration is 3h' / 'The line [segment]'s length is 2m". Another "natural way to convey" your ideas "to non-technical users": "The exam is 3 hours long" / "The line is 2m long". That is, we say something not about the line's length but about the line itself.
    – Rosie F
    Apr 20 at 16:22
  • @Rosie F But there is often synecdoche. 'The circumference is 3cm' / 'the circumference is the line showing the circle'. Apr 22 at 13:03

2 Answers 2

2

1. Addressing comparing two distances:

The discrepancy that you're coming across has to do with how numeric quantities are treated in English. Distance here is the amount of space between two points, not the space itself.

Giving two slightly different examples, if I have $20 of apples and $20 of fish, clearly the apples are not the same as the fish, but they cost the same. Alternatively, if Person A is 5 feet tall and Person B is 5 feet tall, then Person A's height is the (same as/equal to) Person B's height- both heights are the same.

Likewise, two examples involving distance:

  1. Geometrically, given points A1, A2, B1, and B2, if the distance (size of the gap) between A1 and A2 (the line segment A1A2) is the same size as distance (size of the gap) between B1 and B2 (the line segment B1B2), then the two line segments/gaps are said to have the same distance (or alternatively, A1 and A2 are the same distance apart from each other as B1 and B2).
  2. Less technically, if I say the grocery store is 1 mile from my location and the police station is also 1 mile away from my location, then both the grocery store and the police station are the same distance from me.

There is also no issue with saying "these two/three/four/etc. distances are all equal/the same". You are free to talk about all these quantities as individual entities that are also the same. 5 feet of length is 5 feet of length regardless of what it's describing, although oftentimes you do also care about what it's measuring.

2. Addressing "distance of a line":

Distance is pretty much always used to describe the amount of space between things. If you talk about an individual thing like a line segment (or, informally, a line, as you have it), you never say the line segment has a distance- it conveys a distance between two points, but it has a length. Two things have a distance between them - a single thing has a length.

3. Addressing a distance of 0:

"There is a distance of 0" and "there is no distance" both mean the same thing in technical writing (think "there is no amount of space between A and B" - it means the same thing as "the amount of space between A and B is 0"). There are some very, very technical contexts (like software) where this might occasionally be disambiguated, but in almost every circumstance I can imagine this coming up these convey identical meaning.

"Distance of 0" is a bit technical, but I think most laymen would understand it. That being said, in isolation, either of "if there is no distance between points A and B" or "if points A and B are the same" is both more natural and preferable.

10
  • 1
    Your first point ought to be true of all types of measurements, but beware, some "measurement words" are also used in ways that are discrete identifiers. My front yard has an area of 100 sq m and so does my neighbor's; they "have the same area," but "area" can also vaguely identify a specific place: I've planted grass in this area but he's planted roses in that area. Similarly, "this length of string" can be distinct from "that length of string," meaning not the measurement but the actual pieces of string. Apr 20 at 14:42
  • 1
    @user1007028 It might help to think of countable quantities. If I say "I have no apples" it means the same thing as "I have 0 apples". Apr 20 at 16:39
  • 1
    AHD adds the subsense 'an intervening space' for distance. Apr 20 at 16:54
  • 1
    @user1007028 it's fine to say there's no difference in technical areas too (I majored in Math, Comp Eng, and Comp Sci in undergrad). This is for two reasons: Apr 20 at 22:02
  • 1
    To say there is "no quantity" of something is contextual. In pretty much all cases that I can think of if merely said "no <quantity>" that is interpreted as "there is no (positive amount of) that quantity". You would need heavy context to confer the meaning you bring up - "there is no distance that could keep us apart, my love" or "there is no temperature below 0K". Apr 20 at 22:04
0

The Cambridge Dictionary gives a definition of "distance" as:

the amount of space between two places

The Wikipedia article for "Distance" starts with:

Distance is a numerical measurement of how far apart objects or points are.

These present distance as a scalar value which is not distinguishable from any other equal value. For two lines of 20 metres each, it would then be correct to say that they have the same distance and that they are of equal distance.

A "distance of 0 metres" is understandable in a technical context and could be more useful in a comparison than saying "no distance" but both are equally clear to most people. The most natural way to say it would probably be "Points A and B are equal", "A and B have the same position" or "A and B are at the same position".

1
  • [Confining the following to the obviously intended sense of 'point' and minor broadenings]: 'points' are rarely considered (other than in approximate usage, as in 'starting point', 'meeting point') in everyday situations. OP is arguably asking the impossible. Apr 20 at 10:49

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