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Property vs characteristic

  1. Aug 21, 2005 #1

    Chi Meson

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    "property" vs "characteristic"

    OK, semantic hair-splitting time.

    The two words "property" and "characteristic" mean essentially the same thing, but they are often distinguished from each other in textbooks. For example, with waves there are two sets of attributes (yet another synonym) "the properties of waves" and "the characteristics of waves."

    Now one of these will be referring to "wavelength, frequency, waves speed, and amplitude."
    The other set refers to the fact that "all waves reflect, refract, diffract, and interfere."

    So here's the problem: which word properly should go with which set? I have my own opinion. Some texts agree with me yet others have the names reversed. Which makes more sense to some of you out there? For the sake of teaching my students, I have to solidify the use of these words.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2005 #2
    Disclaimer: I'm not a teacher... I'm not a physicist...

    as per dictionary.com
    Property = A characteristic attribute possessed by all members of a class
    Characteristic = serving to reveal and distinguish the individual character

    I tend to think of characteristics as variables, and properties as given. The definitions above seem to conform to my use. However, in your example, I have difficulty deciding as all waves possess all of the above attributes. :confused:

    I know I wasn't helpful, but if it were my judgment call, I would say that characteristics are behavioural, and therefore Properties= wavelenght, frequency, amplitude, etc.

    I would hold off on taking my word for it until you have other responses. I'm simply putting my thoughts here to encourage someone to prove me wrong as PF is great for that! :tongue2: And by doing this, you may get the answer you are looking for :smile:
  4. Aug 21, 2005 #3
    somebody help him...
  5. Aug 21, 2005 #4
    Nor am I a teacher...nor am I a physicist

    As per dictionary.com
    Property = A characteristic attribute possessed by all members of a class
    Characteristic = serving to reveal and distinguish the individual character

    IMO, properties are attributes revealing trends/behaviors/interactions relative to other objects/media/etc... and itself.
    Characterists, "serving to reveal and distinguish the individual character", refer only to the object/media in question...e.g., wavelength, frequency refer to EM waves themselves. They are features intrinsic to the object/media themselves....NOT about how they behave/interact w/other media. Thus, for example, EM waves with "intrinsic" characteristics of wavelength, frequency (that other media might not possess) interact "extrinsically" with other objects/media according to laws of reflection/refraction/diffraction...etc.

    *Characteristics = attributes intrinsic to objects, define the objects'/medias' infrasture or other internal features...independent of its surroundings/external media
    *Properties = define how the object/media in question behave/interact with other objects/media. Properties are dependent on its surroundings/external media. E.g., angle of refraction is dependent on not only wavelength, but also on the optical density of the object the EM wave interacts with. Wavelength is an attribute intrinsic to the EM wave regardless of external factors, like optical density of the media/atmospheric conditions, and is thus a characteristic. Refraction is a property defining how an EM wave interacts with non-opaque media, and is dependent on factors not intrinsic to EM waves. Therefore, it is a property.

    Well, that's my short definition!
  6. Aug 21, 2005 #5
    "Characteristic" is an adjective, whereas "Property" is a noun. (Source: Webster's New World Dictionary from 1972) The two terms can be distinguished by how they are used grammatically rather than by their meanings.

    For example, you could say, "Matt's tardiness is his characteristic behavior;" whereas you could NOT say, "Matt's tardiness is his property behavior."

    With some sentences you can get away with fudging the rules a bit, because in many cases it "sounds" right to use either term. Outside of how they are grammatically used, both terms pretty much mean the same thing.

    Hope this helps.
  7. Aug 21, 2005 #6
    You Are Wrong :mad:. "Characteristic" IS also a noun.
    You could say, "Tardiness is a characteristic of Matt's behavior."

    -In addition, dictionary.com provides the definition of characteristic as a noun:

    *Characteristic - "A feature that helps to identify, tell apart, or describe recognizably; a distinguishing mark or trait."
    ("feature" is also a noun)

    Yes, that source also lists the NOUN definition of "characteristic". Please check it again.

    ??Both are gramatically used as nouns. They are distinguished via meaning and definition.
    Example: "Refraction is a property of EM waves."
    Example: "Wavelength is a characteristic of EM waves"

    Both "property" and "characteristic" are properly used here as nouns. Both sentences are gramatically correct.

    There are cases when we "get away" with incorrect grammar. For example, many answer the telephone "It's me, Billy" (or whatever your name happens to be), although it is grammatically correct to say "It's I, Billy" (or whatever your name happens to be).
    Indeed, "characteristic" and "property" are synonyms, and are often substituted for one another. However, this thread was opened to elucidate the differences between "characteristics" and "properties", at least in the context of physics.

    I hope you understand that it is grammatically correct to use the terms "characteristic" and "property" as nouns. Returning to the original argument that opened this thread, how would YOU distinguish between either of the nouns, "characteristic" and "property" ?
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2005
  8. Aug 21, 2005 #7

    Claude Bile

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    To characterise something, you are measuring its properties. When something is 'fully characterised' all its properties have been measured.

    Thus 'a characteristic' would appear to be synonomous with 'a property'. I have never encountered any significant difference between the use of the two words and both are interchanged on a frequent basis, even in refereed journals.

    P.S. Renge, characteristic can be a noun as well as an adjective.

    Last edited: Aug 22, 2005
  9. Aug 22, 2005 #8
    Yep, I stand corrected as i wrote it. Characteristic can be both a noun and an adjective. However, Characteristic can be used as an adjective whereas property really *cannot* (which the examples demonstrate). Whether I said it perfectly or not, this usage still remains a distinguishing feature between the two terms.

    Actually I have been looking into this more and I found the best explanation that I could for what might "scientifically" distinguish the two terms:

    1. Characteristic is a quality *peculiar* to, and helps *identify* something or someone. The word "distinctive" is repeatedly used when talking about characteristic.

    2. Property. A quality something has. It is not *neccesarily* distinctive and can be a more general quality.

    If you accept that difference then you can differentiate between your usage of the two terms.

    For example:

    "Helium has a characteristic line spectrum (implies uniqueness)."

    "A property of noble gases is that they do not react under normal circumstances with other atoms." (note that you cannot distinguish between say Helium or Neon based on this statement since they both share the same property).

    Good enough? Well, I have still seen them used both ways, but at the same time when something is "unique" I DO see the word "characteristic" favored to imply the uniqueness. Or at least, have you seen someone say that a specific line spectrum is a "property of Helium" as opposed to a specific line spectrum being a "characteristic of Helium"?
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2005
  10. Aug 22, 2005 #9

    Chi Meson

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    OK, so this thread is going this way:
    "property" would be more general and thus refer to the things that all waves do (reflect, refract, etc), while "characteristic" would be more specific and refer to the unique qualities of a specific wave (wavelength, amplitude, etc).

    This is the way the IB people recognize the use of these words, but it is counterintuitive to my own opinion. As I mentioned, this is really hair splitting, but this hair has been split though no convention has been set. Obvioulsy it is not an important distinction for scientists, but being consistant in details like this makes it easier for new students. Thanks for everyone's input.
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