Word Confusion: About versus Approximate

Posted July 20, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 13 August 2017

This word confusion arose from my own curiosity. When does one use about or approximate?

Not so surprisingly, both words are fairly similar, aaaand about is more, well, about location or movement. When about refers to numbers, it’s used in a very general way. “He’s about 35” which could be translated into “he could be anywhere from 30 to 37”. It’s more of a best guess.

Approximate is more scientific — the examples below certainly sound stuffy! Numbers-wise, approximate expects any “guesses” to be reasonably accurate.

Let alone the parts of grammar to which they belong!

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

About Approximate
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com
Colorful flat figures surround it's all about us

About is a much friendlier word.

Map of South Vietnam showing cease fire lines

“Paris Peace Accords with the Approximate Cease Fire Lines” is Smallchief’s own work under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Part of Grammar:
Adverb; Preposition Adjective 1, 2;
Verb, intransitive & transitive 3

Past tense or past participle: approximated
Gerund or Present participle: approximating

Used to indicate movement in an area

Used to express location in a particular place

[Used with a number or quantity] Approximately

On the subject of


  • So as to affect

Used to indicate movement within a particular area

Used to express location in a particular place

  • Used to describe a quality apparent in a person
Close to the actual, but not completely accurate or exact

Verb, intransitive:
Come close or be similar to something in quality, nature, or quantity

Verb, transitive:
Come close or be similar to something in quality, nature, or quantity

  • Estimate or calculate (a quantity) fairly accurately

Used to show that something is almost, but not completely, accurate or exact


Men were floundering about as if a tidal wave had hit.

I’m slowly finding my way about.

There was a lot of flu about this past winter.

There’s a thief about in the hotel.

It was reduced by about 5 percent.

I dunno, he’s about 35.

How’s about us havin’ a little fun?

She’s just about here, Mac.

I was thinking about you.

There was an article about yellow fever in the latest issue.

It’s all about having fun.

There’s nothing we can do about it.

She looked about the room but didn’t find him.

There were rugs strewn about the hall.

He produced a knife from somewhere about his person.

There was a look about her that said everything.

The calculations are very approximate.

Verb, intransitive:
A leasing agreement approximating to ownership can be arranged.

Verb, transitive:
Reality can be approximated by computational techniques.

I had to approximate the weight of my horse.

It’s a journey of approximately two hours.
Adverb: approximately
History of the Word:
Old English onbūtan, from on + būtan (outside of). 1 Late Middle English, in the adjectival sense of close, similar is from the late Latin approximatus, a past participle of approximare, from ad- (to) + proximus (very near).

2 Early 19th century for the current adjectival sense.

3 Mid-17th century, in the verb sense of bring close

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits:

Pecan Pie is Jonathunder’s own work and is under the CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL license, via Wikimedia Commons. The pie chart is from Numbers.