In Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (9th Edition), the definition of refer to somebody/ something is

to describe or be connected to something

So, What’s the difference between them?

  • When a dictionary provides an explanation for a word, you cannot then ask: what's the difference between them. One explains the other. Also, with all due respect, whatever your native language is, a basic bilingual dictionary would give you translations for the word refer and the word describe and connect.
    – Lambie
    Nov 6, 2018 at 18:07

1 Answer 1


For starters, I don't like that definition. That doesn't seem to really define the term.

Describing something means listing a series of features so that somebody else can recognise them. I might describe myself as a short, fat male, with glasses and a close-cropped beard.

Refer to has a number of related meanings/uses. At the core, it's about directing someone to another place or meaning where they can get more information. In fact, it's what you would use instead of describing something. That might mean mentioning something's name, or telling someone where they can find a definition or answer. For example:

"I spent my afternoon feeding ducks."

"Ducks? You mean medium-sized waterfowl with broad bills that go quack?"

"Yes, that's what I'm referring to."

'Duck' is a reference - a word used to point to a broad definition.

Similarly, a reference is a comment or phrase with a deeper meaning for those who recognise it:

Nick Fury: I'd like to know how Loki used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys.

Thor: Monkeys? I do not understand.

Steve Rogers: I do! I understood that reference.

In this case, the reference is to the old Wizard of Oz film, in which the Wicked Witch is served by a collection of winged monkeys; the term has become shorthand in popular culture for a villain's henchmen. Steve Rogers has seen the film, so he understood what Fury was talking about.

Another use:

Before changing any fuses, ensure power is fully disconnected. For details on disconnecting the power system, refer to page 95 of your user manual

This line might be seen in a set of instructions; rather than repeating how to perform a particular task every time it's needed, you would have a single location in the manual that describes the task, and other processes would simply refer back to that location.

Refer is also used when a professional is passing a case on to another professional, especially in medicine. If you visit your doctor and they decide you need surgery, you would be referred to a surgeon.

A reference book is one, like a dictionary or an encyclopedia, that is not intended to be read from beginning to end, but arranged so that you can find a particular piece of information easily.

In all cases, then, refer to indicates pointing one to where more detailed information can be found.

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