Rock or Stone: Is there a difference?

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Stone or Rock? Is there a difference? Working on Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology forced me to consider this question and its implications. Throughout the book, I use the terms interchangeably, based mostly on how they sound or how frequently I used one or the other.

When I did a bit of searching on the web, I found that some people thought that stone was more British; that rock could be hard and soft, whereas stone was always hard; that stones are smooth and rocks rough; and that stones are small and rocks are big. In his wonderful book, Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson writes “Rock is raw material in situ. Stone usually connotes either human handling or human use, although it can also be used to describe naturally produced fragments of rock larger than a cobble.”

[nggallery id=17]Seeking a more erudite source, I turned to one of my favorite books, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to get the fine opinion of its worthy editors. The first definition for rock is “A large rugged mass of hard mineral material or stone.” Its first use comes from Old English, dated at 950-1100. The OED defines stone as “A piece of rock or hard mineral substance of a small or moderate size,” first used in 825. Now, I see the difference!

Curiously, the word stonerock, defined as “A pointed or projecting rock, a peak, a crag; a detached mass of rock, a boulder or large stone,” predates either of the singular words stone or rock. Stonerock, or stanrocces, as it was spelled, dates from the Early Old English, used from 600 to 950. I am not sure that this clarifies my quest but as is the norm for the OED, I got sucked into the many definitions and uses, which run to three pages for rock, including rock nosing, rockchuck, and rock-embosomed; and four and a half for stone, with such nifty combinations as stone harmonicon, stone-pock, and stone-toter.

Perhaps I could find a bit of clarity from on high. In the King James Bible, stone and rock seemed interchangeable, such as in Genesis 31:46, where we read of Jacob telling his brethren to “Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap.” (Now why they didn’t just say cairn here is beyond me!) But there are two situations where stone and rock cannot be substituted for one another. The first is the surprisingly common pastime (at least a dozen times) where somebody must “stone them/him/her with stones.” You can “stone them with rocks” but no matter how tin your ear is you cannot “rock them with rocks,” which allows for the introduction of this silly phrase: you can, at least since the 1960s, “rock them with The Stones.”

More common than death by stone is the affirmation of a Holy Being as the “rock of one’s salvation.” This sense highlights a central difference between the words. People often use rock to refer to something solid, large, grounded, substantial, something to base your faith upon, such as a mountain or palisade. No one would say the “stone of one’s salvation.” Stone, while connoting a hard mineral substance, favors smaller objects, such as something you can pick up in your hands, for example, the stones for the heap gathered by Jacob’s pals.

Seeking out an even higher authority I turned to Shakespeare. He also incorporated stone and rock into his writings, more than 115 times and 50 times, respectively (which includes the plural forms.) One of his most famous uses comes from As You Like It, in the banished Duke’s ode to a new forested life: “And this our life exempt from public haunt/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones and good in every thing.” Clearly the Bard chose stone for the alliteration and sound, as he did in Titus Andronicus, where the title character states “A stone is soft as wax,—tribunes more hard than stones; A stone is silent, and offendeth not.” (One of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers, refers to the “insolent quietness of stone.”)

Shakespeare’s use of rock was often specific to the sea, as something to fear. “Rocks threaten us with wreck.” “And then there is the peril of waters, winds and rocks.” “Alas, the sea hath cast me on the rocks.” No one, especially one with Shakespeare’s gifts, would substitute stone in these situations. Again, his use of rock reflects the idea that rock refers to massive, immovable matter, though this idea does not limit rock to this definition.

I cannot end my consideration of these two terms without turning to one final source of inspiration, that of big time wrestling, or “rassling,” as one former National Park superintendent called it. I refer to the two icons of that theater, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Surely these two men illustrate the differences between the two words.

Ultimately, I have concluded that there is some difference between the terms. I agree with Thorson that stone more often implies some sort of human use. Stone also does seem restricted to smaller material. But rock can also be used in these situations. In this sense all rocks are stones but not all stones are rocks. Clear as mud.



40 thoughts on “Rock or Stone: Is there a difference?”

  1. David – Per your advice, during my recent talk “Urban Paleontology – Fossil Hunting for Lazy People” I used “stone” for “rocks that are used by humans”. I love your use of “The Rock” and “Stone Cold Steve Austin” to provide us with another, authoritative, meaning. 🙂

    1. The Stones always “rocked”, n were usually “stoned.” Thank G-d, they called themselves the “Stones”, n not the “Rocks”. But, come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a rock roll?

  2. in the UK we refer to rock as the raw material and stones are small(er) pieces of rock as you described earlier. For example, a tennis ball sized piece of rock would be a stone (not a rock as in the US).

  3. I have never been stoned in any respect but have been rocked by a few stones. I however feel as a pebble under the rocker of life at times when my frequency to rock is stoped stone cold. Do all rocks and stones have harmonics and frequency to each it’s own? Are we calling a family of sorts to life? Sister pebbles, brother rocky, cusin stoney, great granny gravel, and lets not forget papaw bolder, aunt pearl and uncle gem as we look to the writing in stone! If only we were not so rocky before our head of stone!

  4. If you think of a stone as a smooth, can hold in your palm, rock , I suppose so. People use tumblers to mechanically do it. Why not nature?

  5. I think Rocks are raw. Rough. Covered with mud. Soft because of the muddy layer.
    And stones are smooth. Without the mud layer. (The muddy layer can be removed by men, or wind, or water.). And it’s Hard.

    So, I guess stones that are covered with mud, in nature, are rocks.
    So all rocks are stones.
    And rocks when cleared of the mud, by us or nature, becomes stone.

  6. I can pick up a rock as easily as I can a stone, and with one hand. I regard the difference as one of semantics rather than taxonomy unless we speak in the purely geological sense. In that case, perhaps this (my own, admittedly, but I have struggled with this for many years also): shale is a type of rock, whereas stone would fit more into the category of a monolithic structure, such as a stone (in the form of a formation, outcrop, et al?) consisting of shale plus limestone – or more. Does this work for anyone?

  7. I found your article on the Internet because I was thinking this morning about the Wordsworth lyric poem “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” Wordsworth was certainly precise about language, as any poet is. And he closes that poem with the line “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees.”
    Thought you’d like to add this interesting specimen to your survey of literary voices on the subject. Thanks for your article, which I enjoyed.

  8. The Bible has very clear distinctions between stone and rock. A rock is a piece of ground (mineral based of course) that is hard. A stone, on the other hand is something that is used as a tool, has been fashioned or shaped and has purpose.

    Using these interpretations will give a new understanding as you go through the Bible. Someone can be stoned with rocks which become stones as they are used for something. A rock is not fashioned or shaped and has little to no purpose. A stone is a rock that has been fashioned or shaped or has a purpose. Jesus became the stone which was despised; the capstone. Peter (in his constant error and crudeness before Acts) was a Rock upon which the Church was built and became a foundation stone. David picked up 5 smooth stones to battle Goliath. These stones had a purpose and were fashioned by time, erosion etc. to become smooth. They were stones, not based on size but on purpose. The size does not matter. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was made of mighty stones. Etc. Hope this helps with your quest.

    1. That actually got me thinking. I like the idea that stones are rocks that have some kind of useage to it. Normally, I think of a sone as a small smooth rock that one can pick up, however I can think of one other instance where stone is used when refering to a large mass. I believe there is a difference between a rock wall and a stone wall. When you think of a rock wall, the thing that comes to mind is a rough, jagged wall, but a wall of solid stone makes me think of smooth rock wall. I think it is easier to say stone than smooth rock. So I think as well as usefulness, smoothness also plays a great deal into the definition of stone.

      1. Ahh, you prompted my inner philosopher: Despite the appeal of a stone wall, it’s the rock walls with its jagged edges and rough course where you’ll stand a better chance to leverage your strengths. 🙂

    1. You build a wall or house or bridge out of stone, never rock or rocks. Sometimes a house or foundation can be made of rubble: which is still not referred to as rock or rocks. Even a house made of pieces of granite must be referred to as a stone house. Also a stone patio. Stone is building acurrent building material. This is a current example of Michael’s biblical explanation.

  9. Is the famous British landmark and archeological puzzle called, “Rockhenge”, or is it “Stonehenge “, as I was taught so many years ago in school?

  10. Rock ends with mute k with a silence at the end which gives an angled feel whereas the stone ends with a soft vowel gives a soft roundness feeling.
    Reference:Mary Oliver : A poetry handbook

  11. Ok. Stones can be rocks but rocks cannot be called stones. A stone must be displaced and altered (usually smooth).

  12. Ok, I am coming from the perspective of a senior,duel major in solid earth geology and in bio/ecology . First and foremost, I would like to throw out, Geology is a new science (in the grand scheme of things). By that I mean it is more of a combination of scientific fields used to discribe inorganic natural processes, than a stand-alone scientific field. I bring this up because as stated. Both the words STONE and ROCK have an ancient history among humans in comparison to geology itself. It’s like saying the wheel (rock) was invented 3500 BC. And negating that a wheel can be a wagon wheel or a car wheel but drastically different concepts. Though both apply to the same definition as a way to transport an object over ground. However;…….
    (Unless referring to precious stones)

    GEOLOGY-The Glossary of Geology 2nd edition dictates a rock is an aggregate of one or more minerals, or a body of undifferentiated mineral matter, or solid organic matter, or a slang term for a gem or diamond…

    HISTORY- Rock has a vast history….

    RELIGION- though it was brought up before…. Most religions seems to denote a positive metaphysical or spiritual aspect with the word rock as in: “Drank from the spiritual rock” (Corinthians-Christianity), his word is a rock to stand on (rough translation discribing Mohammed-Quran), rock of refuge(reference to god-Torah).

    GEOLOGY- The Glossary of Geology states a stone can be a general term for rock that is used in construction, either crushed for use as aggregate or cut into blocks, or one of the larger fragments in a variable matrix of sedimentary rock, or a cut and polished NATURAL gem or precious stone….

    HISTORY- Stone was used as a term for weights “stone weights”, this term dates back to the early antiquity era. In ancient Jewish time there was no “standardized” stone. With either a large or small size they were both just called stones (not pebbles or boulders).

    RELIGION- though it was brought up before…. Most religions seems to denote a Physical aspect like in: Pile of stones (sacred act performed on graves-Jewish), Black Stone (sacred site-Islam), Living Stone (name in reference to Jesus-Christianity).

    Joe-Smoe CONCLUSION: though I feel in day to day actions they are interchangeable.
    SEDIMENTOLOGY: Under the division of Siliclastic sedimentary rocks, a subclass of mudrock is mudstone.
    STRATIGRAPHY: Rock facies can be comprised of stone clasts.
    HUMANs, CONSTRUCTION, MINING: the terms are strictly different when talking about processes in a rock quarry as a geologist. The protolith to the product would be a rock to the stone. So if process or altered by humans I would say it’s a stone while a rock is not altered.

    SCIENCTIFIC CONCLUSION: in my understanding when you talk about a rock in a rock or a stone in a stone, you should state it would be a stone in a rock. Rocks break down into a stone. Once a stone reforms into a “rock” it has gone from a stone clast and has been altered (metamorphosed, compressed, or melted…) into a new rock. When referring to gems. Stones=naturally formed, rocks=man made/naturally formed.

    But on a random side note……
    NOW…that I have finished rocking your world!!!! I hope it is not to wrong and is useful.

  13. “Ultimately, I have concluded that there is some difference between the terms. I agree with Thorson that stone more often implies some sort of human use. Stone also does seem restricted to smaller material. But rock can also be used in these situations. In this sense all rocks are stones but not all stones are rocks. Clear as mud.”

    I like the take of human involvement, or at least a small useful piece, so I’m going with that! But by your logic, you have is backwards. In that sense it should be “all stones are rocks (i.e. all stones are a piece of rock) but not all rocks are stones (the Rock of Gibraltar, in situ, is not a stone). Fun that this article still pops up in a search after all this time.

  14. I certainly enjoyed the read, there is is so much about rocks and stones that go beyond the microscopes and telescopes that have affected my growing up in Michigan. Being retired from over 40 yrs in underground construction putting in sewer and water systems for municipalities and developing industrial parks along with working in gravel pits and landfills I collected specimens from different job sites. Being the transient earth keeper of such calls me to think of what a poet once said “Rocks are the bones of the earth and the Crystals the flowers of the Kingdom.

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