Do both sentences mean the same thing?

  • Please, would you order the papers by number?
  • Please, would you sort the papers by number?

"Sort" and "order" are generally interchangeable, and in your example, they are perfect synonyms. The one difference is that "order" can only be used for things that actually have a pre-defined ordering, like alphabetical or numeric. I could ask you to sort buttons by color, but asking you to order them by color wouldn't make much sense.

An ordering also implies an overall structure where each item has a specific relationship to the items before and after it. At the post office, for example, they'll sort letters by their destination, in which case they only care about each letter's category but not its relationship to other letters. The postman may then order letters for his delivery route, in which case each letter's relationship to the others is important.

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    That's a good point. Sorting breaks things into categories. Ordering is a type of sorting in which the categories have a defined a < b < c progression. – Tofystedeth Apr 26 '17 at 20:13
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    "Sort" and "order" might be interchangeable as verbs, but not as nouns; we don't put things in "alphabetical sort." – jwodder Apr 26 '17 at 21:40
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    Ordering by color makes sense to some of us. Roy G. Biv, for example. – Tyler James Young Apr 26 '17 at 23:23

"Order" in this instance means "to arrange methodically", while "sort" means "to group methodically". Which is correct depends on your desired outcome. If you have a set of numbered papers that you wish to be arranged in numerical order, then "order" is correct. If you have a set of numbered papers that you wish to have grouped into categories according to the numbers, then "sort" is correct.

Ex, if your set of papers have the numbers {3, 5, 2, 1, 2, 5, 5, 4}, then the result of "order" would be {1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5}, while the result of "sort" would be {3}, {5, 5, 5}, {2, 2}, {1}, {4}.

That being said, "sort" is often used in place of "order", with situational context making the intent clear.

  • I didn't know about this! Interesting point. – SovereignSun Apr 27 '17 at 5:55
  • @ascallant: do you have a source for the differentiation you claim? To me, the two words, as verbs, are complete synonyms, with sort being used far more often, and with no necessary "group" connotation. I can potentially sort some pool of items on multiple dimensions, some of which may result in more than one item in a bucket, and I can even order them by imposition. – MMacD Apr 27 '17 at 19:32
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    @MMacD, reference your preferred dictionary, ex: dictionary.com/browse/sort dictionary.com/browse/order – asgallant Apr 27 '17 at 21:27
  • If I sort mail [an example of "sort" from Oxford] onto a table, the resulting "arrangement" is visibly "methodical", and none of the resulting "groups" need be of a size greater than 0. To me, that seems sufficient evidence that we're looking at a pedantic distinction rather than a genuine difference in meaning. – MMacD Apr 28 '17 at 10:10
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    The results of a sort can be in order, but it is not a requirement. – asgallant Apr 28 '17 at 14:17

In this context they would mean the same.


Yes, but "order" is techie-sounding, possibly because that's the verb SQL uses for sort: SELECT foo FROM bar ORDER BY foo

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    To the cutie pie who downticked me: when was the last time you used the verb order in a non-technical context to mean "arrange" rather than "declare an intent to purchase"? – MMacD Apr 27 '17 at 19:43
  • Maybe you rely too much on your personal colloquialisms for trying to make a neutral point about this. Please keep that in mind. – klaar Dec 15 '20 at 13:13

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