Exact, Precise or Accurate?

“Be precise.  A lack of precision is dangerous when the margin of error is small.”

Donald Rumsfeld, an American political figure and businessman

Let’s take a close look at the three synonyms and rediscover their meanings!

THE ADJECTIVE EXACT

  1. Exact means correct in every detail: I don’t remember his exact words. This copy is exactly the same. We need to know the exact details.
  2. Exact is used to emphasize that you are referring to the noun after exact: At that exact moment I understood what he had meant. I know exactly how you feel.
  3. Someone who is exact is very careful and detailed in their work: A good detective should be exact. She is an exact, clever secretary.

THE ADJECTIVE PRECISE

  1. Just like exact, precise means something which is not vague but clear and strictly defined: At that precise (= exact, particular) moment I felt sorry for him. Nobody knows the precise (= exact) location of the buried treasure.
  2. Just like exact, precise means strictly correct: What she says is always precise and to the point. Thank you for the precise (= error-free, unambiguous) directions. The director was precise (= meticulous, scrupulous) with his camera positions.

As you can see, the meanings of exact and precise overlap.

THE ADJECTIVE ACCURATE

  1. If information is accurate, it is absolutely correct (note that information can be precise and exact too). If an instrument is accurate, it provides such information:  Clocks of this manufacturer are very accurate. We have received an accurate description of the murderer. Your predictions proved accurate.
  2. If a weapon is accurate, is successful at reaching the target: There rifles are accurate and reliable. They have developed very accurate missiles. I don’s know how to make an accurate shot.

Note that accurate can describe people if you add in something: He is accurate in predicting earthquakes/his calculations/proofreading. If what a persona is accurate in is clear, you can omit the “in something” part: Is she accurate in reading the lips? – They say she is.

A BIT OF MATHS

Although in everyday language we may use exact, precise and accurate without splitting hairs, it’s not just the same in the world of exact sciences. Consider the following examples:

5467.95756793932 is very precise but not accurate.

5 is accurate but not precise.

5.7648 is more precise and more accurate, but not exact.

Pi (π) is exact.

A BIT OF LANGUAGE LEARNING STUFF

You may or may not be a mathematician, but we assume you are an English learner, as long as you are reading this article. That’s why there is one more concept we’d like to shed some light on. It is accuracy. If a non-native speaker is accurate, they use their second (third, fourth, etc.) language correctly, i.e. their grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are correct. It’s important to distinguish between accuracy and fluency. Fluency is the quality of being fluent in speech or writing. If you are fluent, you can express yourself readily and effortlessly, but it doesn’t mean your speech or writing is mistake-free. 

Would you like to improve both accuracy and fluency? Sign up for a course and do it with one of our teachers! We are always ready to help!