I was reading a Scientific American story, “Controversial Spewed Iron Experiment Succeeds as Carbon Sink” by David Biello, when I came across this sentence:

The problem for scientists is that oceanic waters tend to mix, which makes monitoring and delineating an experiment in the ocean challenging.

I'm wondering what delineate means in this context. Does it mean “describe” or “trace the outline of”?

Could someone kindly enlighten me on this?

  • I suppose in that context we can assume the following: "to represent by sketch, design, or diagram."
    – user19148
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 14:28

2 Answers 2


The authors seem to be using the word "delineating" incorrectly. I think they mean "delimiting". From context it seems that they either want to restrict the experiment to a certain range of ocean waters that they can monitor, or else to figure out how large a region of ocean waters they need to monitor, but because ocean waters tend to mix, that's difficult. Restricting the range would be "circumscribing", and figuring out how large a region they need to monitor would be "delimiting". My guess is that they meant "delimiting".

  • 1
    Delineate - Indicate the exact position of (a border or boundary). Delimit - Determine the limits or boundaries of. I can see that in some "experiments" there's a real difference, but in OP's oceanographic context the meanings seem to mix just as much as the waters under study. Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 15:43
  • Thank you so much, Peter Shor and FumbleFingers. Your answers are really enlightening.
    – Shummy
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 15:50
  • 1
    My impressions of these two words was that you can delimit something by putting a big circle around it, but if you want to delineate something you have to find its exact boundary. If this is correct, the word they wanted was indeed delimit, but unfortunately I can't find any solid evidence for this in dictionaries. Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 20:38
  • Delineating is perfectly suited, much better than delimiting in this context. "if you want to delineate something you have to find its exact boundary": You got it right there, yet the answer is not in support of delineate! Establishing the boundary is the issue here.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 4:36

oceanic waters tend to mix

The above phrase provides the key to interpreting the meaning of monitoring and delineating in the sentence.

Owing to the fact that the oceanic waters tend to mix, it is difficult to keep track of the situation (various parameters that are measured and tracked) from time to time. For the same reason, it is difficult to say exactly which effects are due to which causes: Under experimental conditions, the controlling parameters are changed in a known fashion, against which we observe the effects. However, if the waters are constantly churning, the observed results may be due to the changes induced for the experiment, or to other (external) factors.

Delineating here refers to the separation of observed results as above.

  • Thank you so much for your answer, Kris. I have got the general meaning of this sentence, but the word "delineate" is still troubling me. I have checked several dictionaries, but haven't found any explanation that matches "the separation of observed results".
    – Shummy
    Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 14:50
  • @Shummy Examples. sentence.yourdictionary.com/delineate "he singles out a woman caught in a moment of action, set in a carefully delineated space." "Delineate the extent of the adjacent soft tissue reaction in relation to the osteomyelitis." "cultures do not have sharply delineated boundaries." "aspects between venus and the moon are not well delineated."
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 4:34

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