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What is the difference between apart and separate?

From the dictonary I think that both are the opposite of together.

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They are very close in meaning. I think the difference is that if you describe things as apart, there is an implication that they should be, or used to be, or might be, together. Describing them as separate does not have this implication; in fact it may have (weakly) the opposite implication that they do not belong together.

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That might explain why you can pull the edges apart, but you wouldn't be likely to pull them separate. But I'm not sure it explains @Chad's The two trees are far apart (where I can't really see any semantic or syntactic reason why separate doesn't work; it seems to be more a matter of "established idiomatic preference"). – FumbleFingers Jan 26 at 23:03
    
I think "far apart" is a different meaning of apart - where a physical distance is specified. – Colin Fine Jan 26 at 23:34
    
But you would say pull to separate the edges – Pete Kirkham Jan 27 at 0:16

Both words can be used in a variety of contexts, so it's hard to concisely express when one word is more fitting than the other. Here are some differences that come to my mind:

  • I would use apart to describe two people in a close relationship who did not live near each other: My brother and I were apart for two years.
  • I would use separate to describe when two people don't share the same living quarters: My brother and I had separate bedrooms.
  • I would use apart when emphasizing distance between two things: Our bedrooms were far apart, but our sisters had bedrooms that were close together.
  • I would use separate when talking about something that is related to, yet different from, something else: I paid $40 for these teacups and saucers, but the teapot came separate.

However, there are times when the two words could be used pretty much interchangeably: The hermit lived separate/apart from everyone else.

In addition, separate is more readily converted to a noun (separation), and an adverb (separately). Separate can also be used as a verb (although it changes pronunciation): Separate the dark clothes from the whites before you start the wash.

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I'd say separate has shades of quality and apart of distance. also, apart is also readily converted to a verb my brother and I parted, our bedrooms were parted by several metres but our sisters' rooms were not parted at all etc. – Pete Kirkham Jan 27 at 0:21

Separate can mean "different":

Those are two separate questions.

You could not substitute the word "apart" in the sentence above.

The two trees are far apart.

This says that there is a large distance between the trees. It would not make sense to say "far separate" here (though you could say that the trees are "widely separated").

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It may be a "bad" usage but I definitely hear that kind if thing colloquially. – shawnt00 Jan 27 at 1:29

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