Discussion in 'English Only' started by hyperslow, Aug 17, 2011.

  1. hyperslow

    hyperslow Senior Member

    Hello there!

    I've been always very uncomforable whenever it came to explaining the difference between these two. I've decided to conduct some kind of inquiry into the use of it, what should we abstain/refrain from, can we use abstain and refrain from speaking our mind or only one of this expressions is preferable. So I compared them using Google Ngram and it turnes out not to be completelly wrong if I used refrain/abstain from voting, although my dictionary says that from voting we abstain. Is frequency or "because-natives-use-it-that-way-rule" the ultimate rules we should take into accout? By the way, my dictionary gives exactly the same translation for them. I also attempted on a list of words that go with abstain/refrain.
    Abstain from: sex, voting, eating meat, alcohol, cigarettes... Refrain from: smoking, comment, saying, expressing, going, getting...
    Would it be very wrong if I used them the other way round... For instance: refrain from alcohol...

  2. MuttQuad

    MuttQuad Senior Member

    New York, NY
    English - AmE
    Generally speaking, one refrains from doing something, i.e. from taking a particular action; one abstains from using a substance. Another usage nuance differentiating the two is that refrain can be a one-time occurrence, whereas <abstain> usually connotes something of longer or even permanent duration.

    < Edited to correct typing error. Cagey, moderator >
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 23, 2017
  3. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    I had never thought of it that way, but it doesn't quite fit all usage. For example, people who promote sexual abstinence speak of abstaining from sex before marriage, not refraining from sex.

    To me, "abstain" is forswearing something. It is a stronger word and commitment than refraining from something. If I refrain from making snide remarks, I am using a mild form of self-control. If I abstain from making snide remarks, I am attempting to change my behavior permanently. (I think that's what MuttQuad was getting at his last sentence, but "refrain" appears twice in the sentence.)
  4. hyperslow

    hyperslow Senior Member

    So, it's not the words abstain/refrain themselves that should limit their usage but rather my attitude towards commitments I may take on...???
    1. I swear I will abstain from eating meat. --> My commitment seems to quite strong.
    2. Well, as I don't feel well, I think it would be reasonable to refrain from eating meat for a while.
    3. (context: a very heated discussion). Why don't you wait for your turn, you awlays speak out of turn, you have to abstain form it.
    4. Nice people (pupils) never speak out of turn, my boy. Try to refrain from it.
    Are they natural sounding sentences? Plausible?
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2011
  5. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    I think my usage is "abstain from + noun" and "refrain from + gerund".
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2011
  6. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    The only one that sounds odd to me is 3. I don't think that abstaining is something one person tells another person to do. It's usually a personal resolution.

    To tell someone they must abstain from eating meat, for example, is as odd to me as saying "You must become a vegetarian." It's not really a choice you can make for someone else. I suppose a religious figure could say it to a convert, as in "In order to become a Buddhist you must agree to abstain from eating meat."
  7. AidaGlass

    AidaGlass Senior Member

    Is this perception correct?
    Refrain is used when advising someone not to do something. (Applying to short time span)
    Abstain is used when we're talking about our own practices- kind of a personal commitment. (Applying to long time span)
  8. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    That seems right as a general guide to how we use those words. :)

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