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Rob vs. steal

Question:

What is the difference between rob and steal?

Answer:

Subtle differences between words can be tricky, especially in a case like this one. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage explains that, in archaic English, rob was a synonym for steal.

Time marches on, and in modern usage, both words refer to taking something from a place or person without permission. The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines rob as "take away from by force or threats" and steal as "take dishonestly." Clear, isn't it? Luckily, there's an easy way to tell these words apart:

  • You rob a place or person (of objects).
  • You steal objects (from a place or person).

The verb rob is usually followed by the preposition of, while steal is followed by the preposition from. Sometimes the phrase starting with of or from is understood or not stated. For example:

  • A mugger robbed me of my wallet in the park.
  • A mugger robbed me in the park.
  • The thief stole a laptop from the store.
  • The thief stole a laptop.

Here are some fixed expressions with rob and steal that may come in handy.

  • rob Peter to pay Paul—take something from someone to pay someone else
  • rob someone blind—take everything someone owns
  • steal a base—advance one base in baseball through stealth or good luck
  • steal a glance—take a secret, fast look
  • steal a kiss—kiss while nobody's looking
  • steal a march on—do something before someone else to gain an advantage
  • steal away—leave quietly without being seen
  • steal over—gradually fill or cover something or someone (a feeling, darkness)
  • steal someone's thunder—use someone else's ideas or say something first
  • steal the show—outdo other performers (unexpectedly)
  • steal up on—advance on someone quietly and unseen

If you remember that you rob someone of something, and you steal something from someone, you'll be fine… just don't get caught.