Learn English – Differences between summary, abstract, overview, and synopsis


Are there subtle differences in meaning between the nouns summary, abstract, overview, and synopsis?

Which would be the most appropriate term for a one-page "executive summary" of a research report?

From Wiktionary:

  • summary: An abstract or a condensed presentation of the substance of a body of material.
  • abstract: An abridgement or summary.
  • overview: A brief summary, as of a book or a presentation.
  • synopsis: A brief summary of the major points of a written work, either as prose or as a table; an abridgment or condensation of a work.

Best Answer

Summary is the most catch-all term of this group, and the one that shows up the most in general everyday English.

Abstract is most commonly used in the scientific context. It is typically a formal requirement for publication, as the initial section of a scientific paper. Often times if you find scientific papers online, it is just the abstract that is available.

Overview is similar in literal meaning to "summary". It has a slight informality to it.

Synopsis again could be exchanged directly for "summary" in most contexts. It has a slightly more formal feel, and shows up in the literature and the arts a bit more frequently than other contexts (e.g., "I just want to read a synopsis of the novel, not the whole thing" sounds a bit better than "summary"). A synopsis is often more detailed than a regular "summary".

Executive Summary shows up most often in a business context, or sometimes also in a political context (e.g., think-tank white papers).

Any of these would probably work in a research report, but it would also depend on the audience. Scientists would probably be most comfortable with "Abstract"; MBAs with "Executive Summary"; for a more general public audience where you want to seem accessible, "Overview". If you're not sure, I can't imagine going wrong with "Summary".

Note that I'm American, so this answer applies most directly to American English.