Hypothetical vs Theoretical (Overview: Difference And Meaning)

What’s the difference between hypothetical vs theoretical?

What does it mean to speak theoretically vs hypothetically?

What are some examples?

We will look at the difference between hypothetical and theoretical, see what it means to say hypothetically speaking or theoretically speaking, in what situation you should use the term hypothetical or theoretical, look at examples and more.

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Difference between hypothetical and theoretical

Some may confuse the terms “hypothetical” and “theoretical”.

The difference is quite simple.

When we say something is theoretical, we are referring to an idea based on a “theory” or body of knowledge that has already been tested and proven (at least on paper).

When we say something is hypothetical, we are referring to a “guess”, an “idea” or “proposal” where the idea is imaginary for now or formulated without being linked to an existing theory.

Hypothetical meaning

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, hypothetical is defined as:

Involving or being based on a suggested idea or theory

Theoretical meaning

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, theoretical is defined as:

Confined to theory or speculation often in contrast to practical applications

“Hypothetically speaking” vs “theoretically speaking”

When you say “hypothetically speaking”, the goal is to introduce an idea or topic for debate or discussion (it’s something imaginary).

For example:

Hypothetically speaking, would you sell everything you own to find love

When you are forming a scientific hypothesis, you are formulating an idea that is yet to be proven or tested. 

A hypothesis can be a broad idea, question or proposal.

For example:

Hypothetically speaking, the best lawyers are all six feet or taller
How would humans live with dinosaurs at the same time, hypothetically speaking

This is just a hypothetical idea that can be tested (or not) and confirmed (or denied).

When you say “theoretically speaking”, you are formulating your thought or idea based on a valid theory but you are not sure as to its practical implication.

For example:

Theoretically speaking, if we use quantum physics using technology (Einstein’s spooky action at a distance), we may be able to communicate instantaneously from earth to anywhere in space 
Theoretically speaking, if this bullet achieves a speed of X, it should be able to pierce through the protective shield

Something that is theoretical may be possible in practice or not. 

Hypothetical vs theoretical situation

Hypothetical or theoretical situations, thoughts or ideas allow us to search for the truth and discover facts.

The process starts by formulating an idea (hypothesis), then testing it to prove it works (theory) and then applying it to our lives (practice).

A hypothetical situation is a proposed idea, a logic, a proposal or an imagined explanation for a phenomenon.

The hypothetical situation will then be subjected to scientific testing to validate whether or not it can be explained based on the scientific body of knowledge we currently have.

If so, it becomes a theory.

A theory is something that is proven and works on paper.

Some theories can work on paper but are impossible to apply in practice while other theories are eventually adopted in real life.

For example:

Scientists develop medical theories to find ways to cure us of illness and disease while practical medicine is to actually make us healthy

Hypothetical vs theoretical FAQ

Hypothetical vs Theoretical FAQ

What is the difference between theoretical and hypothetical

There are differences between the terms theoretical vs hypothetical.

When you say something is hypothetical, you are formulating an idea or proposal based on little or no body of knowledge, facts or theories.

For example:

Hypothetically, if the earth was bigger than the sun, what would that mean for humans

This hypothetical question is not based on any tested and proven body of knowledge and is fictional and imaginary.

When you say something is theoretical, you are suggesting that based on the body of knowledge we already have or theories, something can be explained or you formulate a proposal.

For example:

Theoretically, if we know that these types of cells are destroyed under this level of radiation, we can use the same radiation to destroy this new virus

This idea appears to work on paper and is formulated based on a body of knowledge available to scientists.

The next step will be to take this theoretical formulation and test it to see if it will work in practice.

What does it mean to speak hypothetically

To hypothetically speaking is to make a broad statement, bring an idea that is new, different or something that is intended to lead to a discussion or debate.

Theoretically speaking allows us to imagine different ways of seeing something, think of new ideas and attempt to find solutions to existing problems based on theories we already know of.

What’s a hypothetical example

A hypothetical example is an example that is purely imaginary and fictional.

You can use a hypothetical example to explain a much more complicated idea or try to make sense of something.

What is another word for theoretical

You can use the following words as an alternative for “theoretical”:

  • Postulate 
  • Assume 
  • In theory
  • On paper

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