Precision and Accuracy in the Use of Language

Jim Mason
5 min readApr 2, 2019
Photo by Linda Perez Johannessen on Unsplash

Do the words “precise” and “accurate” mean different things to you? Wiktionary (https://en.wiktionary.org) gives three definitions for each of them:

precise (comparative more precise, superlative most precise)

  1. exact, accurate; antonyms: inexact, imprecise
  2. (sciences, of experimental results) consistent, clustered close together, agreeing with each other (this does not mean that they cluster near the true, correct, or accurate value); antonyms: inconsistent, varying
  3. adhering too much to rules; prim or punctilious

accurate (comparative more accurate, superlative most accurate)

  1. Telling the truth or giving a true result; exact; not defective or faulty
  2. Deviating only slightly or within acceptable limits.
  3. (obsolete) Precisely fixed; executed with care; careful.

For purposes of this discussion I will ignore the third definitions of them, which are irrelevant to the points I want to make here. What I want to focus on is the distinction that is made in the second definition of “precise”, where it is contrasted with the meaning of “accurate”. That distinction is also made in this example of usage (again from Wiktionary): 1921, Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind:

A memory is “precise” when the occurrences that would verify it are narrowly circumscribed: for instance “I met Jones” is precise as compared to “I met a man.” A memory is “accurate” when it is both precise and true, i.e. in the above instance, if it was Jones I met.

A tool, or more specifically, a measuring instrument can have differing properties of precision and accuracy. Consider a clock, for example. The precision of a clock depends on whether it measures time to the nearest minute only or whether it can also display seconds. The accuracy of a clock depends on whether it shows the correct time. Sometimes a tool’s precision can be deceptive. A clock that shows time to the nearest second is misleading if it is accurate to the hour and minute but not to the nearest second.

Other kinds of tools can also be described in terms of the precision of which they are capable and accuracy with which they are used. The user of…

--

--

Jim Mason

I study language, cognition, and humans as social animals. You can support me by joining Medium at https://jmason37-80878.medium.com/membership