Bisect and Dissect

By Simon Kewin

It’s tempting to think that dissect and bisect mean the same thing : to cut something in two. After all, the bi- and di- prefixes both convey the meaning of “two” or “twice”. So we have bicycle (with two wheels) and dioxide (with two oxygen atoms).

In fact only bisect means to cut in two. A line cutting through a circle would be said to bisect it. A river might bisect a city. The prefix of dissect is not di-, however, but dis- meaning “apart”. It’s the same prefix as in words such as disintegrate (to break up into small parts) and dismember (to cut the limbs from something).

Dissect means to methodically cut something into pieces rather than to merely cut it in two. So, for example, organs might be dissected in order to find out how they work. Dissect has also acquired the more figurative meaning of studying something in great detail without any literal cutting taking place. Thus a statement or report might be “dissected” to see if it contains any inconsistencies or inaccuracies.

When the two words are mixed up, generally it’s the case that dissect is used when bisect is meant. Sometimes dissect is misspelled “disect” to add to the confusion. Only bisect means to cut something into two parts.

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2 Responses to “Bisect and Dissect”

  • NelsonOH

    Thank you for the insightful post Simon. Your article reminded me of a word I learned a few years ago: bifurcate.

  • Semantics

    You actually got that last part backwards. Some people may say bisection when they actually mean dissection. Bisections are dissections by definition, except with the added prerequisite that whatever’s being split is only divided by two and both parts are equal in size. Likewise, words like trisection, quadrisection, and so on mean similar things, except the divisor is different.

    It’s an issue of inheritance. The definition of dissect you’re referring merely means to cut into parts and nothing more. Bisect inherits dissect’s meaning and adds to it, but dissect is a general word and can be used when any division is being made in place of a more specific word.

    More simply put: All bisections are dissections but not all dissections are bisections.

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