situated, located

Dear word sommelier: I have several Francophone colleagues who use “situated” rather than “located” everywhere, since the usual French word is “situé(e).” How do I explain the difference to them?

Geez, ask me something easy sometime. This is actually a tricky one because Anglophones tend to use them interchangeably a lot of the time, and in many cases it’s unnecessary stuffing either way:

The washrooms are located on the second floor.

The washrooms are situated on the second floor.

You can argue about which seems better, and it’s a viable argument, and we’re about to talk about it, but you should not overlook the fact that the best way to say that is

The washrooms are on the second floor.

But the question remains what difference it makes when you do use one or the other. And it does make a difference, not so much of denotation but of tone and of expected entailment and context. Each word has echoes of other words and is seen in particular collocations.

Located is often used with centrally, conveniently, ideally, strategically, physically, and abroad; things can be located at, between, close to, in, near, on, outside, within, etc. It’s used, in short, to establish the location – a spot on a map, a set of coordinates. It’s a common word, sometimes used in conversation, often used in stiff business writing and real estate ads.

Locate is also used to mean ‘find the location of’ and ‘put in a location’:

I have located the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden. [This can mean you found it there or you put it there.]

Situate does not have the ‘find’ meaning; you can only mean one thing when you write

I have situated the water fountain in the northwest corner of the garden.

(In either case, if that’s what you mean, put or placed or installed would also be a viable option.)

Situated is less used in casual conversation, but it also used in the real-estate-ad kind of prose, in collocations with beautifully, delightfully, ideally, picturesquely, pleasantly, well, conveniently, inconveniently, centrally, remotely, and quietly. Notice the emotional tone: situated sits more pleasantly in the mind. And for many users, situated bears the context more in mind. You are located on a spot, but you are situated in a… well, in a situation. Situate also tastes of site (related) and sit (not related).

So when you’re talking about where something is, just as a spot on the map, located works:

Hamtramck is located in Wayne county, Michigan.

But when you’re talking about the context, situated can work well:

Lhasa is situated at the bottom of a small basin in the Himalaya mountains, on the northern bank of the Lhasa river.

You can use located in that sentence as well, but you may find it less natural to use situated in the sentence about Hamtramck, above.

Because situated carries the idea of context, you can also use it in to call forth the context in a more cogent way:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated.

You get the idea of its being set in a lovely location surrounded by trees; your imagination likely fills in some more of the picture. Compare that with this:

This sylvan abode is beautifully located.

This seems to mean that the location is beautiful, or that whoever chose where to put it did a nice job. But it’s not quite as idiomatic. Add a bit more and you may see even clearer how situated seems to call forth context:

This sylvan abode is beautifully situated in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

This sylvan abode is beautifully located in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Compare this with the dot-on-the-map approach:

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s located.

I’m trying to find West Clarksville; I don’t know where it’s situated.

Inasmuch as you’d use the second one, you’d probably be talking about the surroundings, not just the coordinates – unless you just felt you should use a word that’s one syllable longer.

There’s one more thing that affects the sense of the two words: situate also carries an echo of situation, which has a much broader range of usage than location:

How did you get me into this situation?

How did you get me into this location?

There’s also the question of the sounds – located has the liquid /l/ and the hard /k/, while situated has a voiceless fricative and affricate hissing and catching – and the rhythm, with located a dactyl and situated two feet of trochaic rhythm. Indeed, you will often make the choice less on the basis of semantics and connotations and more on the basis of where the word is located. Or, rather, where it is situated.

2 responses to “situated, located

  1. Here’s an interesting sentence, written by a sophisticated non-native English speaker, that further conveys the potential for lack of clarity: ‘Shopping areas are often situated as a nexus between the urban core and suburbia’ (not the original sentence, but close enough; the original appears in a manuscript I’m editing; I’m inclined to not change it).

    The use of ‘situated’ here certainly fits your idea of conveying context, James. But perhaps the author only means that downtown areas are often a nexus between two things, or that they appear as such. ‘Situated’ seems to be too active a verb, too deliberate; it is not the same as your example about the sylvan abode. ‘Located’ is not the answer, either, but perhaps ‘perceived’ would work.

  2. Very helpful. When I read of the distinction between “locate” and “situate” I tended to think about the nuance of whether the thing is the subject or object.

    When something is “situated” it draws more attention, as you pointed out, to the context, the larger implications of where it was put. Who “put” it there (the unknown subject), and why there, as opposed to here, or elsewhere, implies a deliberate, active decision to put that something there; what becomes almost more important, then, is the area in which the thing is; the context impacts our assessment or perception of the thing.

    Whereas, “located” is more intrinsically focused on the thing itself, with little emphasize on the location other than to help one find the important thing, which is the thing. There’s no contemplation of why the washroom is were it is; the bottom line is, you need a washroom, that’s the important thing, and it’s there, on the second floor; there will be no additional relief to derive from it being on the second floor; it is what it is.

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