Distance vs. Displacement: What's the Difference?

Edited by Huma Saeed || By Sumera Saeed || Updated on October 17, 2023
Distance is the total path traveled, while displacement is the straight-line change in position.

Key Differences

Distance and displacement, both essential in physics, measure movement. Distance refers to the total length or path an object travels, without any consideration for the direction. In simple terms, if you were to walk in circles, your distance would account for every step taken, regardless of where you started or ended. On the other hand, displacement provides a direct measure from the starting point to the endpoint, giving a sense of both magnitude and direction.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023
Distance always has a non-negative value, since it's merely a cumulative measure of how much ground an object has covered. Whether you travel forward, backward, or in zigzags, the distance keeps adding up. Displacement, however, can be zero, positive, or negative, representing the object's net change in position. Walking 10 meters east and then 10 meters west results in a significant distance traveled but zero displacement.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023
Understanding the difference between distance and displacement is crucial in kinematics, the branch of physics dealing with motion. While distance might indicate how much effort was expended, displacement reveals the effectiveness of that effort. If a person walks around a large field and returns to the starting point, their distance might be several kilometers, but the displacement would be zero.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023
Interestingly, distance is a scalar quantity, meaning it only possesses magnitude. Displacement, contrastingly, is a vector quantity, having both magnitude and a specific direction. For example, stating that someone traveled 5 miles gives the distance, but saying they traveled 5 miles north provides displacement.
Aimie Carlson
Oct 17, 2023

Comparison Chart

Definition

Total path traveled
Straight-line change in position
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Value

Always non-negative
Can be negative, zero, or positive
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Quantity Type

Scalar (only magnitude)
Vector (magnitude and direction)
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Affected by Path

Yes (every part of the path counts)
No (only start and end points matter)
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Example

Walking in circles
Walking from point A to point B
Sara Rehman
Oct 17, 2023

Distance and Displacement Definitions

Distance

Distance is a scalar quantity.
The distance between the two towns is 50 miles.
Sara Rehman
Oct 17, 2023

Displacement

Displacement can have negative, positive, or zero values.
Walking back to the starting point gives a displacement of zero.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Distance

Distance is always non-negative.
Regardless of the path he took, the distance remained 5 miles.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Displacement

Displacement indicates the net change in position.
His displacement was 5 miles east.
Huma Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Distance

Distance measures the total path covered.
She covered a distance of 10 miles during her morning run.
Huma Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Displacement

Displacement can be smaller than, equal to, or greater than distance.
Walking in a straight line gives a distance equal to the displacement.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Distance

Distance does not specify direction.
The distance from her home to the school is 2 miles.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Displacement

Displacement is a vector quantity.
A 10-meter displacement south differs from 10 meters north.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Distance

Distance accumulates with movement.
His daily walking distance adds up quickly.
Aimie Carlson
Oct 17, 2023

Displacement

Displacement considers both magnitude and direction.
The displacement between two cities might be 50 miles northwest.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Distance

The extent of space between two objects or places; an intervening space.
Sumera Saeed
Mar 24, 2019

Displacement

The act of displacing.
Sumera Saeed
Mar 24, 2019

Distance

The fact or condition of being apart in space; remoteness.
Sumera Saeed
Mar 24, 2019

Displacement

The condition of having been displaced.
Sumera Saeed
Mar 24, 2019

FAQs

What does distance represent?

Distance denotes the total path an object has traveled.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Can distance ever be negative?

No, distance is always a non-negative value.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Why is displacement considered a vector?

Because it has both magnitude and direction.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

When is displacement zero?

When the starting and ending points are the same.
Aimie Carlson
Oct 17, 2023

How does direction factor into displacement?

Displacement always has a specified direction, like north or south.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

In what scenarios would displacement be more important than distance?

In navigation, to find the shortest path between two points.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

How does displacement differ from distance?

Displacement is the straight-line change in position with a direction.
Huma Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Can you have a large distance but small displacement?

Yes, like walking around a track and stopping close to where you started.
Sara Rehman
Oct 17, 2023

Which is more straightforward, distance or displacement?

Distance, as it doesn't require direction.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Why can distance and displacement be the same?

If an object moves in a straight line without turning back.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

Do distance and displacement have the same units?

Yes, typically meters or kilometers.
Aimie Carlson
Oct 17, 2023

Is the distance around a circle's circumference its displacement?

No, the displacement would be the diameter or zero if ending at the start.
Sara Rehman
Oct 17, 2023

Can direction change displacement's value?

Yes, moving opposite to the initial direction can decrease it.
Janet White
Oct 17, 2023

If someone says they traveled 10 miles north, are they giving distance or displacement?

Displacement, due to the direction provided.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Why might an athlete care about distance more than displacement?

To track how much they've run or biked, regardless of start and end points.
Harlon Moss
Oct 17, 2023

Why is displacement often used in physics problems?

It's more precise, accounting for both distance and direction.
Harlon Moss
Oct 17, 2023

Can you determine distance using displacement?

Not entirely, as displacement doesn't account for the entire path traveled.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023

Can displacement be greater than distance?

No, displacement is always less than or equal to distance.
Aimie Carlson
Oct 17, 2023

Is the distance between two cities the same as the displacement?

Only if you travel in a straight line between them.
Harlon Moss
Oct 17, 2023

How does one calculate displacement?

By finding the straight-line distance and direction between start and end.
Sumera Saeed
Oct 17, 2023