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one of the meanings of "span" from oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com:
span — the length of time that something lasts or is able to continue

the definition of "duration" from oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com:
duration — ​the length of time that something lasts or continues

What's the difference between "span" (in the meaning above) and "duration"?


my own sentences:

(1a) The span of the war was six years.
(1b) The duration of the war was six years.

(2a) The span of the period when the economy was in recession was three years.
(2b) The duration of the period when the economy was in recession was three years.

(3a) The span of the video is one hour.
(3b) The duration of the video is one hour.

(4a) The span of his performance was seven minutes.
(4b) The duration of his performance was seven minutes.

(5a) The span of the negotiation was three hours.
(5b) The duration of the negotiation was three hours.

(6a) The span of the illness was two weeks.
(6b) The duration of the illness was two weeks.

What's the difference between a- and b-variants?

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  • Six sentences are unnecessary because the construction in each one is identical. Maybe reducing the examples to two and adding a different word order would be more useful. I believe that span is more often than not added to nouns (an attributive noun) e.g. the life span of a sparrow is.... the wing span of…, the attention span of some children can be ...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 28 at 9:49
  • They're often used interchangeably especially when contrasted with a point-in-time. There's a slight difference of register, with latinate duration being used in formal contexts. span is figurative when applied to time, being originally a spatial measure.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 28 at 10:17
  • With duration the emphasis is on the passage of time and with span the emphasis is on the finite length of time. I would never say any of the sentences you give as example uses, BTW. They're grammatical but not truly idiomatic.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 28 at 10:27
  • @TimR Can the noun "span" (in the context of time) collocate with the nouns "war", "period", "video", "performance", "negotiation", "illness"? I mean: can such collocations sound natural? Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:13
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    @Lovii "the span of " : that war, that period, that video, that performance, that negotiation, that illness" are not idiomatic ways of saying how long those things lasted or, in the case of the video or peformance, how long it takes from beginning to end.books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=the+span+of+the+*%2Cthe+duration+of+the+*&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=en-2019&smoothing=3
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 28 at 18:53

2 Answers 2

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Your example sentences are not best usages of these two words. For example:

(3a) The span of the video is one hour.
(3b) The duration of the video is one hour.

Instead of saying either one of those, I think most speakers would simply say:

The video is one hour long.

You also have these sentences:

(1a) The span of the war was six years.
(1b) The duration of the war was six years.

Let me try to provide a more typical usage for span:

The war went on for six long years, and the nation's economy crumbled during that span.

The idea is this: you wouldn't necessarily use span to define a given timeframe (as you did in all your example sentences). However, you might use span to allude to a timeframe already specified. Some would argue my sentence works better than this more repetitious alternative:

The war went on for six long years, and the nation's economy crumbled during those six years.

Collins has some good example sentences that use duration:

  • *Journalists are expected to remain excluded for the duration of the trial.
  • Much may depend on the depth and duration of the coronavirus shock*.
  • He was there for the duration of the war.

None of those sentences specify a given length of time. In fact, the first two were written when the exact length of time was yet to be determined.

Though the words have pretty much identical meanings, I wouldn't say they are interchangeable. I think:

The war went on for six long years, and the nation's economy crumbled during that span.

sounds better than:

The war went on for six long years, and the nation's economy crumbled during that duration.

Similarly, I prefer this:

Journalists are expected to remain excluded for the duration of the trial.

better than:

Journalists are expected to remain excluded for the span of the trial.

However, I can't figure out a guideline for explaining why one word might sound more natural over the other in a given context.

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Duration typically implies a more precise, measurable, and often fixed period of time. It's often used in formal or technical contexts, such as in science, engineering, or business. Span, on the other hand, implies a more general or approximate period of time. It can suggest a broader or more flexible timeframe, and is often used in more informal or conversational contexts.

In general, if you need to be more precise or formal, "duration" might be a better choice. If you're looking for a more conversational or general term, "span" could work well.

However, it's worth noting that in many cases, both words can be used interchangeably, and the difference is relatively subtle.

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  • This appears to be AI-generated, which is not allowed.
    – CDR
    Commented Apr 28 at 21:22

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