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Just after reading an unanswered (though pretty interesting) question in French Language, I thought that the reason it didn't get answers was that it actually asked several questions at once.

Then I formulated automatically this reflection in my head:

It's too broad

But immediately after I wondered if I shouldn't rather say:

It's too wide

Hence my question: as dictionaries seem to globally propose the same sense for both words, are there some contexts where one should be preferred to the other?

Time to write the above, I thought I identified the begin of a difference: "wide" would apply to somewthing concrete (such as a place, an object, a point of view... anything measurable), while "broad" woud rather be used for more abstract things (for example a domain of knowledge).

Note: I could find a related question, but it (and its answer too) is strictly focused on a specific context.

My own question is more [broad | wide] :)

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  • Breadth and width refer to related but subtly different things. The problem is, I think, that different people will interpret these differently, and any response you get it likely to be more about opinion than precept. For example I can say, "He's able to have an educated conversation on a wide range of topics," or "That stretch of the river is too broad to swim safely". Some people will switch these up, of course.
    – Andrew
    Nov 10, 2016 at 20:30
  • @Andrew First I must confess I'd not previously realized that broad/wide where related to breadth/width! Then, thanks to the rest of your comment(s) I must understand that there is no real answer to my question. Ok, so henceforth I'll choose by the inspiration of the moment :)
    – cFreed
    Nov 10, 2016 at 20:58
  • For reference, one of our reasons for closing a question here at ELL is that it is "too broad." I think we use "broad" to refer to intangible things such as topics, questions, ideas, pronunciation ("a broad a") and more often use "wide" in reference to physical things. This is far from universal, and there are exceptions, but "a very broad range of topics" and "a very wide doorway" are useful markers. Nov 10, 2016 at 21:08
  • broad in the beam, a ship; broad hips, a woman, broad smile, etc.
    – Lambie
    May 11, 2020 at 22:29

3 Answers 3

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Seems like you are content with your answer, but 'broad' is better in this context.

When you are talking about abstract nouns, i.e. nouns that aren't LITERALLY broad/wide in terms of measurable distance, the vast majority believe that it sounds better to say 'broad'.

'As you can see, there is a wide gap between my thumb and my forefinger'

In the above example, a 'gap' is a distance I can measure with a ruler, so I use 'wide'. In the example below, 'knowledge' is not something to which I can assign an absolute value, so I use 'broad'.

'He does not merely specialise in one subject. In fact, the extent of my son's knowledge is more broad than that of my old school teachers.'

However, if you want to say 'lots of things', which is an abstract (non-measurable) concept, then you would say 'a wide range [of things]' rather than 'a broad range [of things]'. That's basically the only exception though.

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Something is wide if its length or distance is great. It fits to describe something that would abstract to a line, and objects.

Broad means wide, or large, and strongly implies a surface or something considered a "side", though the phrases broad shoulders or broad hips is very idiomatic.

A good heuristic is to prefer wide unless you are talking about furniture/appliances, land, or body parts.

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A rule I have not found anywhere, but made up myself while trying to make sense of the distinction between 'wide' and 'broad':

When you use 'wide', you are thinking of the space or gap between two things or between the two ends or sides of something, whereas when you use 'broad', you are thinking of the bulk of the thing itself.

You say 'eyes wide open' because you are thinking of the space or gap between the two eyelids, knowing perfectly well that the bulk of an eye cannot change much, but you say 'a broad smile' because you are thinking of how the lips can stretch to cover a larger portion of the lower face. Similarly, when you say 'broad shoulders', you mean that the bulk of the person's trunk is much more at the shoulders than it is at the waist.

The people who christened a wide street Broadway must have been thinking of the amount of material which had to be laid down to create such a large street rather than at the distance that separated one pavement from the opposite one...

A knowledge is 'broad' rather than 'wide', not because 'knowledge' is an abstract noun, but because you measure the bulk that – put together – all of the pieces of information the person gathered constitute.

In the case of someone's vocabulary, you use 'wide', not because 'vocabulary' is more concrete than 'knowledge', but because you are thinking of the range of that vocabulary, which starts at informal words and extends well into formal words; you are considering the space that separares the most informal words form the most formal ones.

In passing, it seems that this distinction between the width of a space and the breadth of a thing itself disappears in 'narrow', which is the opposite of both 'wide' and 'broad'.

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  • @Colin Fine: oops! Cannot help making up rules where native speakers of English tell me there are not any...
    – user58319
    Apr 26, 2023 at 20:26

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