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There are two sentences like these.

  1. The girl stared at his eye.

  2. The girl stared at him in the eye.

What is the difference between the two expressions in meaning?

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As per @John's answer, #1 is a fairly unlikely statement. But it would always be understood to mean there was something unusual about his eye, and she was (probably, rudely) staring/gawping at it.

But #2 simply isn't idiomatically credible with at - and although you might occasionally come across She stared him in the eye, the idiomatic standard is She looked him in the eye, as you can see from that NGram. For all practical purposes they both mean the same (she looked directly and intently into his eyes, not just at his face).

So even if you might think you want the "looking intently" connotations of stare rather than the more general-purpose look, it's not really a good idea to couple this with in the eye. That's because failure to use standard phrasing will probably simply distract readers, rather than make them pay attention to your attempt to be more "precise".

Note that to look someone in the eye nearly always implies being honest and/or without fear or shame.

  • The "stared at his eye" wants to be completed with "which lay on the floor after it fell out of his head". ;) – Catija Sep 27 '16 at 15:02
  • @Catija: You certainly have a vivid imagination! When I wrote "something unusual about his eye" I was thinking he might just have a black eye or something. My most exotic "something" was thinking an optician might have just applied dilating drops to one eye (to make it easier to look for cataracts, for example). My 95-year-old father had that done recently, and I gotta say it looks really weird. Not as weird as an eye actually falling right out, but definitely enough to make everyone stare at it! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 27 '16 at 15:09
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#1 means that there could be something wrong with his eye, and she was staring at it.

#2 means that she was staring at him - his mind, his being, his self - 'through' his eye(s).

Note that the second version is usually plural "eyes" - even though she may only be looking at one of them.

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