I came across someone saying "printed book, kindle, and [iPad]".

Is "printed book" a natural term? Are there any better synonyms?

  • I'd say that it's becoming a more familiar term as electronic books become more ubiquitous. I think I've heard the distinction also described as print book vs e-book. I don't think the dust has settled on this part of language evolution long enough for there to be a clear consensus on what's the most "natural" way to say it.
    – J.R.
    Mar 15, 2013 at 9:55
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    A very understandable version would be "dead tree edition", but it's probably not appropriate in all places. Mar 15, 2013 at 12:55
  • @JoachimSauer too nerdy!
    – Golden Cuy
    Mar 15, 2013 at 13:50
  • 1
    paperbacks, hardcover, traditional books as opposed to electronic books or ebooks. Mar 15, 2013 at 17:43

4 Answers 4


Before computers and e-readers, there were other types of non-print media on which one could read a book: microfilm and microfiche, for example, and photocopy. Book used to mean printed book when I was a kid half a century and more ago.

Now it's necessary to distinguish between printed and electronic versions of "books". Many of my foreign friends in Taiwan own Kindles, iPads, and tablets, so they read ebooks. A few diehards still buy paperback books, and one or two still buy hardcover books.

As J.R. says, there isn't a current standard for the natural term, but I don't find anything unnatural about printed book or print book. When people learn that one of their friends has a book and want to borrow it, they always have to ask whether it's a printed or electronic version, what the format is, and whether it's DRM-protected.

  • 1
    +1 Yes, but do you mean real books you can actually roll up or these nasty new codices? Mar 15, 2013 at 12:08
  • 1
    @StoneyB: Well, I just downloaded Kindle editions of The Writer Who Stayed (William Zinsser) & The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid), & a sample of Against Fairness (Stephen T. Asma) from Amazon. All are in paperback editions as well as Kindle format. I prefer to haul my reading with me without having to allow backpack straps to slice into my shoulders. I can increase the size of the print so that I don't need to wear reading glasses. That's not "nasty", I think.
    – user264
    Mar 15, 2013 at 12:25
  • @StoneyB: hmm, was "book" ever used for scrolls? I believe the term originates from a tree-name (probably "beech"), and might have been a reference to the wood that tablets (either waxed or plain) were made of. Understandably, tablets were never rolled up, but they were sometimes tied together into, essentially, codices.
    – Martha
    Mar 15, 2013 at 14:07
  • @Martha Well, of course there's no recorded Gmc before codices were in use. But incisions in beech bark are permanent, do not heal. And Lat liber, which undoubtedly precedes codices, derives from a word meaning (inter alia) bark, bast. Moreover, as you note, the PIE root has been applied to many species of tree; and birchbark scrolls are very ancient: a few surviving examples date to the 1st century CE. Mar 15, 2013 at 16:15

I prefer paper copy but there's nothing inherently wrong with printed book.


Using the term "a Printed book" will raise some eyebrows if you use it on a regular basis. However, the person you came across wanted to distinct ebooks from normal books, which are very different. Because of that, he used the adjective printed to make a distinction between electronic books on the kindle and ipad and those that are made out of paper.

The usage is correct in this context. Some other ways to make the distinction clear could be:

  • a physical book
  • a real book
  • There may come a time in the future where an ebook is considered a "normal book," and no eyebrows will be raised at all.
    – J.R.
    Mar 15, 2013 at 9:58
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    I probably conveyed it wrong then. What I wanted to get across was that you do not say it every single time. For instance: "Did you read the latest Harry Potter printed book?" Sounds really unnatural, because you do not need to let people know per se if it was a digital book or not. I do understand that ebooks are making a huge progress and that they will replace paper in the future. However, the thought that ebooks will replace printed ones makes me a little anxious to be honest... Mar 15, 2013 at 10:08
  • Yes, I still enjoy thumbing through paper copies as well (which I think is another accepted way of expressing it – at least for the moment).
    – J.R.
    Mar 15, 2013 at 10:13
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    Some people might express annoyance at the term "real book", as it (perhaps) implies that ebooks are fake.
    – user230
    Mar 15, 2013 at 13:36

In the OP's given context, "printed book" is perfectly natural, since it's contrasted with other options. But in isolation, it would sound rather strange.

One might say "Did you read it in print, or electronically?" But again, this manner of expression requires a contrast.

For an actual paper edition, one could say "hardbound" or "softbound", but that's probably too specific. "Print edition" could be a substitute if it's really necessary to identify the physical medium without comparing it explicitly to something else.

(This reminds me of the neologism "analog watch", which didn't exist until direct-reading electronic watches became popular.)

  • Especially when one considers that a precise watch will move in a stepwise fashion -- tick, tock -- and so it is decidedly not analog in intent or implementation. The cheaper of such watches rely upon the same timing components as digital watches. Of course what is a better analog of time than a periodic function? /musing Dec 13, 2016 at 5:44
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    I thought the word for this phenomenon was "retronym". The need to re-name an existing item to clarify that it's, in effect, the old thing, not the newer version. "Acoustic Guitar" "Corded Phone" etc. May 21, 2019 at 19:24

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