Difference between the terms movement and motion

Terminology is always challenging. I have previously written about definitions of actions and gesture several times (e.g. here,  here, and here) and chapter 2 in the book Musical gestures: sound, movement, and meaning (Routledge, 2010).

Movement vs motion

There are, however, two words/terms that I still find very challenging to define properly and to differentiate: movement and motion. In Norwegian, we only have one word (bevegelse) for describing movement/motion, which makes everything much simpler. But when writing in English, which word should be used? And what is the difference?

It only adds to the confusion that Wiktionary defines movement as “physical motion between points in space”. And Wikipedia has a page on motion (in physics), while none of the many movement pages are related to body movement.

During the last years, I have asked many native English speakers about the difference between motion and movement, but have not received any good explanations yet. Many of them think they are slightly different, although this is usually based on their feeling rather than on a proper explanation of the difference. Some native speakers think the two words are the same and can be used interchangeably.

I have also asked researchers working on various types of movement-oriented disciplines about their use of the words, and they often tend to stick to one or the other. From these discussions, I have come to think that people working in biomechanics and physics prefer motion, while people working in physiotherapy, dance and music prefer movement. That motion is a more scientific term is also suggested here. From this, we could assume that motion is related to the measurable displacement of objects, which the term motion capture attest to, while movement refers to the qualities or meaning of the displacement.

Asking Google for help

The above assumptions are, however, only my assumptions. So I thought it would be interesting to see if I could get some more empirical data on the topic. So I decided to use the powers of Google to quantify the differences. Here are some figures from google and google scholar:

search termGoogleGoogle Scholar
movement562 000 0004 120 000
motion144 000 0002 210 000
“body movement”4,830 00083 000
“body motion”1 370 00076 300

So, clearly, movement seems to be used much more frequently than motion in general language, and also in the scientific literature. However, body movement and body motion are used almost the same amount of times in scientific papers.

But what if we search for the use of the two terms in different fields? Then we get these numbers:

search term 1search term 2GoogleGoogle Scholarsearch term 2GoogleGoogle Scholar
music+movement565 000 0001 960 000+motion213 000 0001 110 000
physics+movement136 000 0001 940 000+motion64,100 0001 340 000
mechanics+movement36 400 0001 270 000+motion46 800 0001 140 000
biomechanics+movement6 110 000163 000+motion3 060 000167 000
physiotherapy+movement4 580 00071 200+motion2 530 00038 600
kinesiology+movement1 690 00028 900+motion1 050 00020 100

Again, we see that movement is generally used more than motion, even in physics and mechanics. I am quite surprised that music+motion is used so frequently, particularly since movement has a double meaning in music (i.e. parts of a piece).


What to conclude from all of this? I still do not know what the difference between movement and motion is, and the numbers show that movement is used more than motion also in the disciplines that I thought used motion almost exclusively. Still, I like the idea that motion is used to describe physical properties, while movement is used to describe the qualities of motion. So I will stick to that for a while myself.

What do you think? Any comments or suggestions are highly welcome!

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.

14 thoughts on “Difference between the terms movement and motion”

  1. To me a movement seems more singular and atomic–it sounds slightly better to focus on a movement out of movements than a motion out of motion.

    As long as you pick something and make your choices and unambiguous it should be fine.

  2. Could it be something to do with how connected/disconnected one wants to be with the displacement one is interested in? Movement could be associated with feeling which occurs or somehow needs immediate attention, whereas motion could be associated with a thought that may be toyed with. One can put a thought on the table and thus can be disconnected from it in the psychological sense, whereas it is perhaps rather hard to do so for a feeling. In that sense, I personally find that I can visualise ‘a ball is moving’ immediately, as opposed to ‘a ball is set in motion’, which sounds more passive and disconnected.

  3. The definition of those words (dictionary) suggests that “correct” usage depends on context, so maybe that’s why this confusion arises?

  4. And by stating the obvious I ment to say that if we stick to the definitions and the usage examples in the dictionary we should be fine.

  5. I think that technically, movement is static while motion is mobile. The distinction is more important in academic (science) context but it is ambiguous if we apply it to everything else (literature, usage on daily basis etc). Glad to be proven wrong 🙂

  6. I think movement depends on incase of ball hit by a bat
    reaches some distance with the help of some external force applied on it
    motion reaches some distance with out the help of any external agencies

  7. Look at a clock with the hour, minute and second’s hands- with the seconds you can see the ‘motion’; with the hour, you know you have ‘movement’, but could not see it in an obvious manner.

  8. Correlation is not causation, and quantification is not evidence-based problem solving, my friend! While your search spit back loads of numbers, they say nothing for the meanings of these words. You can’t be sure of the context in which they were used or if their co-occurrance with other terms is coincidental. You might get around this by using quotes and “AND” but you’re still only using Google. What I mean to say is it’s not an operationalized corpus; you can’t distinguish duplicate tokens nor can you detect the quality of tokens.

    Have you spoken to any linguists? This is an excellent question for a linguist! If you deconstruct the words and take a look at form meaning relationships, what we see is different distributions; these words are not interchangeable. If they were, then “the dancers motions on stage were graceful and majestic” would mean _exactly_ the same thing as “the dancers movements on stage were graceful and majestic”. Similarly, you certainly could not say that the plane is “in movement” as it flies you somewhere, but it can be, “in motion”.

    The problem with these two words is that people often mistake one for the other. For example, you might hear someone say, “the movement of the gears makes the belt move and keeps the assembly line going.” But this person most certainly means that the “motion” of the gears is what moves the belt. Timmy almost has it with the clock analogy. BOTH the second hand AND the hour hand display movement, though one slower than the other (obviously). Their movement is a result of motion. The motion is the process underlying the observable physical shift. So the motion set in place by the quarts mechanism or the gears (depending on if you have a “real” watch or not, hehehe) is what creates and displays movement.

    That said, I’m a linguist, not a grammarian. I would never say someone is wrong for using ‘movement’ when they might really have meant ‘motion’ because language is dynamic and it’s a social tool. Consider how when you are navigating, you typically tell your driver to “go straight”, but chances are you actually mean “go forward”. In terms of everyday language use, saying “go straight” is considered a grammatical, or a successful, communication of ideas. Consider the non-linguistic ramifications of being that person who says, “you mean I should go forward, right”? Are you thinking of a highly intelligent but slightly socially awkward science-minded person? Or a “stickler”? I am! There’s nothing wrong with mixing up the two terms, but for sure they have different meanings when this precision is vital to a successful communication. How and when they are used every day helps create linguistic change and meaning modulation, so that’s certainly not a bad thing.

    Simply put, motion is a process or the action, whereas movement is a physical embodiment of that process. Note I said “simply” too because there’s actually a lot more to talk about here 🙂

  9. Dear Elle, your reply is most timely and useful. And thank you Arj for your research. I am translating some rather cosmic text into english. As in norwegian there is only one word to express movement. Considering my usage is mostly within quantum realms motions often fits better. movement sounds to me like something more established, while motion feels more like the force, the power behind. My understanding is purely intuitive. Nevertheless i find this terms mind-bending.
    I am not english ..but indeed its hard to find britons who understand the difference. we need more linguists like Elle and we will get there eventually.

    By the way, would any of you talk of mental motions, mental movements, the movement of thoughts, the motion of thoughts?!

  10. Glad my comments and explanations could help! Thank you for your kind words.

    Lil’bub, it looks like your intuitions are informative. Don’t discount them because most of our Linguistic knowledge (really, nearly all of it) is subconscious. That’s why it is so hard for a native speaker of English to articulate how, when, and/or why to use ‘motion’ versus ‘movement’; we _know_ this information, but unless someone motivates us to think about it, we don’t really have reason for metalinguistic analysis. We simply follow those thoughts, with out attending to them (think of tying your shoelaces).

    This is exciting you mention mental movements. I didn’t say much about that, just alluded to it with my final, “a lot more to talk about”, but that’s actually what motivated my inquiry and linguistic analysis– My dissertating husband turned to his linguist wife and asked, “what’s the difference between motion and movement?!” because he’s writing about mental movements/motions as they relate to music composition and music inside and outside of the concert hall. I don’t know his sources well, but I do know he’s pulled a lot from philosophy texts on metaphysics and analysis of “classical” versus “modern” music compositions and performances (that is a completely incorrect usage of those terms, and hopefully not an insult, but I admit this is way outside my area of research!!)

    A great many philosophers discuss this concept. Start with metaphysics and branch out from there.

  11. motion is physical, tangible
    movement can be physical, tangible but it can also be a concept, intangible.

    For example “The Punk Rock movement of the 1980’s” but you can’t say “The Punk Rock motion of the 1980’s”

  12. I see, Norwegians have similar problems as Germans. In German we also have only one word “Bewegung” (like Norwegian bevegelse). I am finishing an article on “Musical Movement” right now. The problem is not only to understand English-written texts, but also to translate “accomplished” texts into English. If I go back to older German texts about “Bewegung” (it may be philosophical or in scientific works) I don’t have the distinction that I should be aware of when writing English. In that case I can’t go back to the “original” version to find the differences of meaning, as it is exactly the original that does not represent such a differentiation, whatever English-speaking people may (consciously or unconsciously) may know about it. Finally, you may become an expert in “Bewegungsforschung” (forskning), but will not be able to distinguish quick and clearly about such “simple” things like “movement” and “motion”…

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