Take a look at this, I would say, mess.


A place where an industrial or manufacturing process takes place.

(from here)


A building fitted with machinery for a manufacturing process.

(from here)


A building or group of buildings where goods are manufactured or assembled chiefly by machine.

(from here)

Isn't it the same thing described by different words? I'm sure that there are some differences, even if they are not delineated in Lexico

  • A mill turns the complex into the simple (grain to flour), but a factory turns the simple into the complex (flour to bread). I’m not sure where plants fit in.
    – StephenS
    Aug 20, 2020 at 4:38

1 Answer 1


It is indeed frustrating to find distinct words with dictionary entries that overlap to such a degree.

To get at the differences you will need to dig a little deeper, and maybe research the etymology. For example one attempt to differentiate plant and factory

I can think of two distinct situations

  1. You see an industrial complex, a sign outside says "Car Assembly Plant" or "Biscuit Factory" or "Woollen Mill". Is there a way to deduce which of plant, factory or mill was selected before you see the sign?
  2. In conversation you want to refer to such a complex, and do not know its allocated name. Will your meaning be clear if you choose the "wrong" word? Is there a best default to use?

Going back to some origins:

Mill has a quite specific root in the grinding, such as wheat into flour, hence windwills. The term broadened to other forceful industrial processes. When I was a boy in Yorkshire my town had buildings where wool was processed into cloth, we called those Woollen Mills, and Lancashire had its Cotton Mills. Hence the stereotypical:

Trouble dahn t'mill

I would say that "mill" implies processing some basic ingredient into something that itself is used by another industrial process. The original meaning comes from grinding, mill-stones grind grain to flour.

  • Flour Mill produced flour then used by bakers to make bread and cakes.
  • Paper Mill processes wood to paper which is then passed to printers
  • Steel Mill processes ore and metals to pre-formed steel sheets and rods for use in other industrial processes.
  • Woollen Mill processes wool to cloth used by tailors and milliners.

A factory has connotations of manufacturing, creating complex objects.

A plant is not a word I remember being used in this way (as opposed to a living, growing, organsim) as a boy in the UK, but is certainly common now. I view plant as something larger than a single factory, a huge car manufacturing plant for example. I think plant can describe places where things are processed rather than manufactured, for example a water purification plant.

So to name something a mill we have relatively clear concept. A plant seems a broader term than factory. For things such as a water-processing plant, it's clear that plant is a better term. But why are the Nissan Assembly Plants plants rather than factories? I can think of no reason other than scale.

My default would be to use the word factory. I'd be confident of being understood.

  • 1
    The "mess" was not providing semantic differences that in reality exist. That is, I was referring to a fault of the dictionary, not the language. That's what I meant Aug 20, 2020 at 15:38
  • Why is cloth not complex? I still don't understand what is the difference between the terms (between 'plant' and 'mill', in particular) Aug 21, 2020 at 4:38
  • What about, say, fertilizers? Is it complex enough? Aug 22, 2020 at 4:22
  • What is the second-best option? It is important to use synonyms from time to time Aug 23, 2020 at 3:46
  • I have adjusted my answer in the light of your comments. I hope it helps a little.
    – djna
    Aug 23, 2020 at 10:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .