Fowler says to avoid -ion words to describe a state or quality and to instead choose -ness words for this purpose. -ion should describe a process or action.

Yet he writes:

So far as the words are used with overlapping meanings, preciseness is differentiated by implying the importance of precision is exaggerated. Preciseness rather than precision is the attribute of a precisian.

So what does this mean? Merriam-Webster also seems to say that preciseness carries "so strong implication of severity or strictness", and gives an example as "there was a certain amount of preciseness about the young man".

What do you think is the best choice? By ear, I was just going to replace preciseness with precision.

  • 'Preciseness' is somewhat unknown to me. 'Precision' is probably a much more preferred word (between just those two, whatever the general preference might be).
    – Mitch
    Jul 17, 2012 at 18:28
  • 2
    See also "precise-looking": english.stackexchange.com/questions/42508/…
    – JeffSahol
    Jul 17, 2012 at 18:28
  • 6
    Fowler is best in his broad strokes, and worst in his pettifogging prescriptivism. While there is nothing wrong with using "preciseness," there is little to be gained by substituting "precision" for it. The vast bulk of modern readers will not care about the preciseness of Fowler's distinction (or should I say "distinctness"?) Side note: I think it's a safe bet that the number of people reading this article who will understand precisian without looking it up is vanishingly small.
    – Robusto
    Jul 17, 2012 at 18:39
  • @Robusto: 'precision' or 'precisian'? There's a difference? I thought the 'a' was a typo.
    – Mitch
    Jul 17, 2012 at 19:57
  • @Robusto: I think given the context you'd lose that bet! Mitch may be the only one who doesn't pick up on the fact that -ian ending (as in Christian) is likely to indicate you're talking about a type of person. Jul 17, 2012 at 21:24

1 Answer 1


Precisian has at least two senses:

• A religious purist; a Puritan.
• Someone who strictly observes the rules; a pedant or stickler.

Also, besides the sense "The condition of being precise; precision", preciseness also has a now-dated sense, "pedantic behaviour". It is apparently that sense of preciseness, and the second sense of precisian, which Fowler is concerned about. That is, by "Preciseness rather than precision is the attribute of a precisian", he meant "Pedantic behaviour, not precision, is the attribute of a pedant or stickler (a precisian)". While Fowler's remark is correct, most people aren't concerned about what a precisian is, so the distinction that Fowler pointed out is of minimal relevance.

  • +1; but I disagree with this statement: "by 'Preciseness rather than precision is the attribute of a precisian', he meant 'Pedantic behaviour, not precision, is the attribute of a pedant or stickler (a precisian)'". I think Fowler's goal here is to explicate the term preciseness by connecting it to the term precisian (which he assumes the reader knows); so, if I'm right, then a better translation of his sentence is "Compared to the word precision, the word preciseness is more applicable to pedantry or sticklerism."
    – ruakh
    Jul 17, 2012 at 19:42
  • @ruakh, we could argue about that – it could go either way – but enough preciseness already. Jul 17, 2012 at 20:18

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