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These two words, 参考【さんこう】 and 参照【さんしょう】, seem to be very similar in meaning, and I'm not sure of the difference. They do seem in my experience to be used a bit differently, however. For example:

  • 参照する seems more common than 参考する
  • But 参考にする seems more common than 参照にする
  • And 参考になる more common than 参照になる
  • And the keigo form ご参照ください seems more common than ご参考ください

Do the meanings of these words differ significantly? Or is it just a differentiation in usage?

By extension, when talking about my own intentions to consider something (e.g. something like 「○○を参照するつもりです」 or 「○○を参考にするつもりです」), which of these is preferred?

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参照 means actually reading the reference, while 参考 generally refers to using existing knowledge/idea. I.e. 参照 is narrower than 参考; everything that can be 参照ed can be of 参考, but not everything that can be of 参考 can be 参照ed. E.g. your experience leading a project would be of 参考 when leading another project, but you won't be able to 参照 it because it's not something you can literary read. Conversely, if someone is operating a nuclear power plant you want that person to 参照 the user manual rather than taking the user manual into 参考; 参照 would imply he'll follow it to the letter, whereas 参考 leaves some room for improvisation.

参照する seems more common than 参考する

参考する is not natural.

参考にする seems more common than 参照にする

参照にする is not natural.

参考になる more common than 参照になる

参照になる is not natural.

the keigo form ご参照ください seems more common then ご参考ください

It would be ご参考にしてください, but this can only be used by someone of higher rank than the audience as it sounds condescending. Asking somebody to literary look up the reference is OK (e.g. please see page 30 in the usage manual), whereas asking someone to take something into consideration can sound more impolite (e.g. please take our best practice into consideration).

By extension, when talking about my own intentions to consider something (e.g. something like 「○○を参照するつもりです」 or 「○○を参考にするつもりです」), which of these is preferred?

If you mean you are literary going to look something up, use 参照 whereas if you are referring to your general intention to consider something, use 参考.

  • Thank you for the very detailed answer! This is exactly what I was looking for. Although, if you are just going to say "X is not natural" with no further explanation, the answer may be even better without listing them one by one. – rintaun Nov 16 '14 at 2:10
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    @rintaun I think what he means is that those are basically non-gramatical. You cannot say 参考する. You have to say 参考にする and conversely you cannot say 参照になる. In other words, he's saying it's not a question of relative commonness. The "unnatural" ones are basically errors. – virmaior Nov 16 '14 at 5:14
  • @virmaior I understand that's what he's saying; though I don't entirely agree, that is not at all what I was saying. Rather, my point was that listing them individually as they are with no additional explanation: a) takes up a large amount of space, while conveying relatively little information, and b) comes across as slightly condescending. – rintaun Nov 16 '14 at 7:27
  • @Enno Shioji, Great thank you for the precious explanations! – Fara Jan 31 '17 at 14:23

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