April 3, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: duplicate or replicate

Posted in duplicate or replicate at 6:37 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Replicate or duplicate

A reader writes:

Is there a difference between replicate and duplicate? People seem to use them synonymously. Are they the same?

This is a tough one because we DO use them synonymously these days. Let’s start with ‘duplicate’ which means to make an exact copy of something. The word, itself, has a strong sense of ‘two,’ and that is how it used to be used—meaning that we make one copy of something. However, these days, we often use it to talk about multiple copies, and I think the meaning involving many copies is standard now.

I think of ‘replicate’ a little bit differently. If you replicate something, you repeat it.  It can be a duplicate, but not necessarily. For instance, in science, we replicate experiments to show our ability to reproduce the results, that is, we hope to duplicate the experiment and the result. But that doesn’t always happen. We can replicate the experiment, but we don’t always duplicate the result.

Does that make sense?

That being said, if you look up ‘replicate’ in a dictionary, one of the definitions is often ‘duplicate.’ So maybe, the distinction is limited to the field of science and also to copying CDs where the methods of copying are quite different depending on whether you are replicating or duplicating the CD. (I’m not going to get into that.)

Bottom line: Maybe we can use them synonymously.,jut think about  the context. That counts.



  1. Paul Gygi said,

    Replicate-Duplicate-Reproduce? In the world of fashion, suppose a very talented person/seamstress sees a photograph of a garment in the women’s fashion magazine and wants to own it. It may or may not be available at retail and there may or may not be a Vogue or Butterick pattern available. However, the person/seamstress is capable of making a “copy” of the garment without a pattern based on personal expertise. Did the person/seamstress replicate, duplicate or reproduce the garment?. Precise duplication is unlikely and probably impossible even at the visual comparision level.

  2. John Kelsey said,

    Duplicate as a verb: make a copy, e.g. a photocopy. As a noun it refers to an exact copy.

    Replicate as a verb: repeat something, e.g. an experiment. I have not seen it used as a noun, but it certainly could be.

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