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Asphalt, cement, concrete, pavement

The nouns asphalt, cement, and concrete all refer to materials used to create hard, often flat surfaces, but the terms are far from interchangeable. Pavement, meanwhile, is a general term for any hard surface, especially a road or sidewalk, meant to bear travel. The other three denote specific materials sometimes used to make pavement.

Concrete: Concrete is less general than pavement but more general than the others. Concrete is any tightly packed composite construction material made from some combination of cement, gravel, limestone, granite, water, sand, and additive elements. It’s commonly used not just in pavement but in the construction of buildings and other large structures.

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Cement: Cement—or, more specifically, Portland cement—is a fine, limestone-based powder that binds and hardens when mixed with water. In concrete, cement is the main binding agent holding together the rest of the mix. It is usually light gray, but there are many varieties.

Asphalt: Asphalt is derived from bitumen, a dark, sticky substance that appears in natural deposits and as a byproduct of oil production. Like cement, asphalt is used as a binder in concrete mixtures. Asphalt is sometimes used as a shortened term for asphalt cement, which is darker than other types of cement. If the pavement is black or nearly black, it’s likely asphalt.

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  1. I believe UK road engineers use “pavement” in the sense described, but in everyday British English the word has a more restricted usage, as the equivalent of American English’s “sidewalk”. In other words, it is a linear section of paving for pedestrians, running alongside a road. It excludes the running surface for vehicles, and also any larger paved areas intended for pedestrians, such as city squares or pedestrianised shopping centres.

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