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In the Oxford Learner's Dictionary, a spade has a squared metal part and a shovel has a metal part with curved edges. This is the picture from Oxford dictionary.

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In Cambridge dictionary, a shovel has a squared metal blade (source). This is the image of a shovel from Cambridge dictionary.

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Also in Cambridge dictionary, a spade has a curved metal blade (source). This is the image of a spade from Cambridge dictionary.

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What is the difference between "a spade" and "a shovel"?

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  • 3
    The bottom two pictures are both shovels, see the lower one is among the list at the top. A spade typically has a straight edge and is stronger. It is also a cutting tool, for roots and compacted ground, whereas a shovel is used for scooping up loose material. The bottom one is perhaps a sort of 'in-between' tool, as carried by a military vehicle, with some capability as both a spade and a shovel, but not ideal for either job. May 8, 2023 at 14:30
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    american-english And now I'm confused even more. I always thought the flat ended shovel was called a flat-blade shovel, and the one with the rounded tip was a spade-shovel (because it looks like a spade from a deck of playing cards). May 8, 2023 at 20:22
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    I hope one thing you take away from the answers is the difference isn’t clear even to many native English speakers! May 8, 2023 at 22:23
  • 2
    FYI - These appear to be BrE based references. In AmE a fork is a pitchfork (doesn't matter if it's flat or cupped, it's still a pitchfork), a strimmer is a Weed Whacker or a trimmer, a spade is pointed at the end, and a shovel is flat at the end.
    – EllieK
    May 9, 2023 at 12:27
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    English seems to be losing the word spade as a digging implement.
    – Joshua
    May 9, 2023 at 19:38

10 Answers 10

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The difference is in the purpose of the tool, as described in the dictionary definitions you have found.

A spade is for digging holes in the ground. It has a strong, flat blade, typically straight-ended (despite Cambridge's picture).

A shovel is for picking up and moving earth, coal, manure etc. The blade usually turns up at the sides so that stuff doesn't fall off so easily.

I found this website - which shows a square-tipped spade even though it says that many people think of them as having a pointed tip!

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    I'd say this answer is probably true, but I'm skeptical that most English speakers are actually aware of this technical definition of the words. My family (speaking American English) uses "shovel" to refer to both shovels and spades that are large and require two hands to use. We use "spade" to refer to small, one-handed digging implements. My point is that OP probably shouldn't expect everyone to follow the definition given here, even though this definition is correct.
    – T Hummus
    May 8, 2023 at 17:50
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    Growing up in the American Southwest, we had both a spade and a shovel in our garage with the purposes you've laid out, but the spade was pointed as in the Cambridge picture to help break hard, dry ground. Trying to dig in with a straight-bladed shovel was usually an exercise in futility.
    – Cadence
    May 8, 2023 at 19:22
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    To further @THummus's point, I speak American English and spade is not in my active vocabulary at all (except as a playing card suit). Big tools like this are always shovels, and the little ones for gardening are trowels.
    – Juhasz
    May 8, 2023 at 19:26
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    A pointed tool is usually best for digging holes, a flat-edged one is best for lifting/moving material and edging garden beds. Is a spade usually used for digging and edging shallow garden beds? A flat-edged implement would probably be the wrong tool to dig a deep hole or a long trench - I'm surprised you describe the spade as for digging holes, when the ground is broken more easily by a pointed shovel, and the dirt more easily moved by a shovel's typically larger size and concave shape. May 8, 2023 at 20:08
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    I’m very surprised at all the Americans commenting that this basic distinction (breaking ground vs moving soil) is unknown to them. I’m absolutely no gardener or digger, but even I know the difference! @zaen It’s very hard to tell what exactly you’re saying, because your terms are mixing unrelated things. The tip of the blade can be straight or pointed on both spades and shovels, but spade blades are flush with the handle (so ‘flat’), while shovel blades are angled on the handle and curve up at the sides (so ‘round’). Spades are for digging, shovels for moving. May 9, 2023 at 3:07
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In common usage, the terms are interchangeable, though at least in my experience ‘shovel’ is preferred over ‘spade’ in American English (I suspect this has to do with ‘spade’ having significantly more alternative definitions, including possible usage as a racial slur and a handful of uses in animal husbandry that are often not listed in dictionaries).

In technical usage, there are differences but they are subtle.

Formally, a shovel is an implement used for moving loose material such as dirt, gravel, concrete, or snow. The blade (the part that actually holds the material) is usually turned up at the back and sides to prevent whatever is being carried from falling off. The leading edge of the blade may be curved or may be straight, depending on what is being carried. The leading edge of the blade may be sharpened (for example, on a snow shovel, where the sharp edge is used for breaking ice), or may not.

A spade, in this context at least, is an implement used for digging holes. The leading edge of the blade of a spade is almost always sharpened, and may be either straight or triangular (but almost never curved, as that is not especially useful for digging holes), and the blade is typically mostly flat, though it will often have a short section at the back that is bent 90 degrees so that you can use your foot to apply extra pressure to cut through roots when digging with it. Spades, by their very nature, are also inherently shovels (you have to move the dirt out of the hole somehow).

It’s also worth noting that these days, most shovels made for gardening are also spades, because there is generally no need to have a distinct tool just for moving dirt. By the similar logic, most folding shovels, camping shovels, and entrenching tools are also designed to serve both roles.

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    Another place where they are definitely not the same word would be heavy construction equipment. We still use the term "steam shovel" today (despite the fact they're all diesel hydraulics and not steam powered these days"). A "steam spade" is not a thing. Nor is a "snow spade" for that matter, since you mention it. May 8, 2023 at 19:06
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    I would say (in British English, and being keen on tools) that most folding or camping shovels aren't shovels, but spades. BTW you seem to have a half-finished sentence:*"bent 90 degrees so that . Spades"*
    – Chris H
    May 9, 2023 at 8:09
  • @DarrelHoffman - I remember pictures of the construction of the Panama Canal which showed wonderful steam shovels. May 9, 2023 at 8:52
  • @ChrisH - I remember also reading of accounts of hand-to-hand fighting in Flanders where British troops invaded German trenches and used their 'entrenching tools' to attack the troops they found there. A kind of folding spade I think. May 9, 2023 at 8:54
  • @MichaelHarvey these days, yes, but British WWI tools were different (Wikipedia has a picture) resembling an adze with a pick (though the handle was removable to leave a very short-handled spade). Modern ones are very similar to what I carry in my van in winter but similar, with a smaller blade than a gardening spade.
    – Chris H
    May 9, 2023 at 9:17
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These words are not at all interchangeable, except perhaps when used figuratively.

A spade is strong and sharp at the leading edge to allow digging in compacted soil. It often has a flat part at the back which you can step on to push it into the ground.

A shovel is only suitable for moving material that is already loose. It often is curved up at the sides to stop the loose material from falling off, and maybe slightly curved in the middle too, like a spoon.

You can use a spade when you need a shovel, but it will be a bit harder work because its strength makes it heavier and the material will fall of the sides. You cannot use a shovel when you need a spade, its shape will not allow it to be forced into hard ground.

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    I'm surprised by the images of shovels shown here: they are much too straight to be used for shoveling. The ones I've seen look like these: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Skovl.jpg joostdevree.nl/bouwkunde2/jpgs/schop_02_schep.jpg I.e. with a clear curve so that you can easily scoop up stuff with the blade horizontal, without having to awkwardly keep the handle also horizontal and low to the ground. It surprises me that that curve is apparently considered to be optional; I can't imagine having to shovel using a shovel with a straight handle. May 9, 2023 at 9:19
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Since you are talking about the Oxford dictionary, maybe you are interested in British usage. But for completeness, I wanted to add American usage. As an American, I don't think I've ever heard anyone call a tool a "spade" in informal speech. "Shovel" is the more common word and "spade" to me sounds like the fancy word, in contrast to @JamesK's comment that "spade" sounds more plain. This seems to be evidenced by the Google ngrams, in that "shovel" seems to have a bigger advantage in American usage.

Google ngram American usage of "spade" and "shovel" [Google ngram British usage of "spade" and "shovel"2

To confuse things further, there is an implement called a "transfer shovel," which looks an awful lot like your description of a spade. I'm going to assume that transfer shovels and spades are distinct if you are well-versed in gardening tools, but the difference isn't obvious to me. Here is a screenshot from Home Depot's webpage:

Home Depot shovels

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    A transfer shovel has a deeper scoop in the blade. This allows it to hold more material so you can transfer piles of whatever faster.
    – Ukko
    May 8, 2023 at 20:39
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    But "shovel" can also be a verb, whereas "spade" cannot, which inflates the results for "shovel". If you compare "a shovel" with "a spade" the AmE results are much closer. May 9, 2023 at 8:37
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    @EspeciallyLime Good point! Yeah, there some limitations of ngrams since "spade" might also be referring to cards, which is pretty much the only way I hear the word used where I live. May 9, 2023 at 15:15
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    I agree with this answer. I'd add that, at least conversationally,, "all spades are shovels, but not all shovels are spades."
    – J.R.
    May 9, 2023 at 19:02
  • I (southern British English speaker) would label those as "shovel, spade, spade" (going from left to right) May 10, 2023 at 9:56
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There's no big difference.

A shovel tends to be used like a big spoon to carry materials. The etymology comes from words meaning "push away". They "shove" things around. So shovels tend to have deep blades, sometimes with curved-up edges (to stop things from falling off). Some shovels have a point. They might be used by builders for moving concrete from a wheelbarrow into a mould.

Spades tend to be used for cutting into the soil to turn it over. They tend to have flatter blades. They are used by gardeners for trenching and aerating the soil. They might have a flat or pointed tip, though more often they are flat. Spades tend to be slightly smaller than shovels.

The distinction between spades and shovels is associated popularly with the proverb "call a spade 'a spade'" (Which means to use plain and direct language instead of fancy, euphemistic or deceptive alternatives). With "shovel" being the "fancy" alternative. (actually this is a mistranslation of the Greek en skaphen skaphen legein)

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you could use either word.

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    In the UK, there is, I think, a division between gardening-tool nerds who correct you if you use the 'wrong' word, and everybody else, who don't care and use the words interchangeably. Also I think 'shovel' can be a verb, and I'm pretty sure you can shovel up sand, gravel, etc with a spade if that's the only tool you have, and aforesaid nerds aren't present. May 8, 2023 at 10:38
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    Having thought a bit, I think the casual UK interchangeability works one way, some people happily call a spade a shovel, but not so many the other way around. When I was a kid we had a coal-shovel on the hearth for getting the lumps of coal out of the scuttle and into the fire (tongs as well) and it would not have been right to call it a 'coal-spade'. May 8, 2023 at 12:52
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    I think the "He calls a spade, 'a spade'" phrase comes from the playing card suit: ♠, which of course resembles the pointed end of a spade-type shovel as well. But that phrase refers to playing cards, not actual shovels. May 8, 2023 at 17:45
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    @DarrelHoffman I'm surprised to find Wikipedia doesnt suggest that. It came from an old Greek expression that mentions troughs.
    – JMac
    May 8, 2023 at 17:58
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    -1 from me as well. When you say "99% of the time" it seems you live in a world where words for real physical objects are only ever used figuratively. If I need to dig a hole and ask for a spade, and someone assumes it means the same as a shovel and gives me a shovel, I cannot do my work! If you never need a either spade or shovel in your daily life then yes, they are interchangeable, but for anyone who ever has need of the physical object, they are very different and must not be mistaken - and surely someone wouldn't use the word if they weren't interested in the object it refers to.
    – Tom V
    May 9, 2023 at 9:01
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In German, we have the same distinction. We have a "Spaten" and a "Schaufel". Usually, spades are made from thicker material with a bent-over, sturdy back edge to step on. It is used to dig into compacted soil. The blade's shape is not the defining feature; we have a "Gaertnerspaten", i.e. "gardeners' spade" that often has a pointed digging edge like your second example, while the "Spaten" without qualification is usually with a straight digging edge. You might even find "sawblade"-like features on spades, usually on one side, to cut away roots while digging.

Shovels come in all forms and sizes, from relatively small shovels for cement and sand to huge ones for manure and snow.

Note that "shovel" is also used in a more general sense that includes both spades and shovels as used before.

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A shovel is for ... wait for it ... shoveling.

A spade is a paddle-like shape.

Note that in the Oxford photo, the label "spade" is, simply, wrong, a typo. They'll fix it in a later edition. The pointy for-earth-breaking tool shown is overwhelmingly, pedagogically, a spade.

(Yes, yes, yes you can sometimes use a knife to shovel, you can sometimes use a laptop to shovel, you can sometimes use a peony to shovel. Whatever. The pointy tool shown is a cartoon, pedagogic, spade.)

The label on the Oxford photo is just a typo, there's absolutely nothing else to see here.

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With tens of thousands of companies creating thousands of slightly different types of shovels and spades, there was always going to be some overlap with the purpose of the tool and some variations in the naming, especially when translated into different languages.

Since there are spades almost identical to shovels, the easiest way to remember it is probably to think about what you will use the tool for.

Digging? It's a spade.
Shoveling? It's a shovel.

That being said, people use the tools at hand, so you find people shovel with a spade or dig with a shovel.

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Don't worry. Many British people will also be unclear. If they have never had cause to use both implements, they may not know that the other word is not a synonym.

(After they have tried to do work intended for one with the other, they should be getting an inkling ...)

A spade has a flat blade and is for digging or for breaking up compacted soil.

A shovel has a blade turned up at the edges and is for moving loose stuff from a heap into a wheelbarrow or similar. It holds more, especially if the stuff is loose (for example, gravel). It's not usually as sturdy as a spade and is likely to break if you try to dig with it. It's typically also wider.

A spade may have a pointed blade or a flat one.

There are edge cases. There's a trenching spade (or shovel?) with a long narrow sturdy blade turned up at the edges, used for digging a trench just a few inches wide and over a foot deep in which to bury a pipe or cable.

And then you can investigate mattocks, azadas, digging hoes, etc....

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In general usage, in my part of the southern US, a spade is long and narrow, and a shovel is wider and shorter.

But that said, I think most people here would consider a spade to be a specific type of shovel. Anything that's basically a cupped blade used to move earth is a shovel, and a spade is a particular type of shovel with specific uses.

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