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Imagine there is a student who always self-promotes to university professors in order to gain better grades. A friend of his wants to stop/discourage him from doing that and tell him how unpleasant he finds his behaviour. I was wondering if you could let me know the following self-made sentences mean the same in English:

  • Stop sucking up to the professor so much.
  • Stop flattering the professor so much.
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    @MickS - While I agree with the first part of your comment, I strongly disagree with the second. Meanings are easily found in dictionaries; nuances are not. I think this is a fair learner's question.
    – J.R.
    Sep 26, 2016 at 19:41
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    As you wish. Your the mod.
    – Mick
    Sep 26, 2016 at 19:56
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    @A-friend "Sucking up" is much more vulgar and insulting a term than "flattering," but aside from that they are equivalent in meaning. The same is true of must of the terms presented in response to your previous question about "sucking up." Sep 26, 2016 at 21:21
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    @P.E.Dant - I'd say they are similar in meaning, but not "equivalent." Flattering seems to be a broader term that can apply to more areas than sucking up. For example, "Your haircut looks nice," could be considered flattering, but it's not necessarily sucking up. An example of the latter might be, "You're the best professor in the department."
    – J.R.
    Sep 27, 2016 at 0:48
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    @J.R. In the context described in the accompanying narrative and two sentences, they're equivalent in affect, but not in meaning in the general case, as you say. Sep 27, 2016 at 1:20

2 Answers 2

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Sucking up to X is a disparaging or somewhat insulting form of flattering X. I'm not sure about it being vulgar, it's definitely a strong phrase and usually impolite, but not something I think that would make a movie R-rated in the US.

It heavily implies that your flattering behavior is insincere and only done to gain something.

Also, to flatter is usually used with things one says - either to that person about him/herself or others, whereas to suck up to could also apply to giving gifts, etc. Flatter can also generally mean "make look good" - e.g. a woman can consider a dress flattering to her figure. Suck up to doesn't work at all like that.

Note that suck up X and the idiom suck it up mean something different entirely.

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  • Thank you very much LawrenceC. But to make sure, please tell me if it is possible to say something like: "He used to flatter the teacher to get better marks."? Does it sound natural to you in this sense? I have some other alternatives like: (( -- He used to polish the apple of the teacher to get better marks. --)) --- OR --- (( -- He used to lick the teacher's boot to get better marks. --)). These two mean a polite way of saying the same thing to me, but the first one "to flatter" is a polite choice for me. Do you confirm my take? ;)
    – A-friend
    Oct 1, 2016 at 9:20
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    "He used to flatter the teacher to get better marks," is possible, probably one of the more polite ways to put this, and sounds good.
    – LawrenceC
    Oct 1, 2016 at 16:32
  • "Polish the apple of the teacher" isn't flattering; it is a slight start to "sucking up".
    – gnasher729
    Oct 18, 2016 at 8:30
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"Flattering the professor" is saying things to the professor that make him or her look good. Like saying how excellent his latest publication is, how nice his or her haircut is, and so on. "Flattering" can be truthful and deserved - if the professors latest publication was excellent, there is nothing wrong with saying it. Or it can be not quite truthful. Or it can be completely untruthful, which often backfires. However, there is a connotation that the flattering is done to get into the professor's good books, which would be a slight character flaw in yourself. But only a slight one.

"Sucking up to the professor" means you are saying things solely to get into the professor's good books, and whoever said this thinks that this is detestable and a huge character flaw on your side. There is "sucking up" that is not at all flattering - if the professor does something wrong and you loudly agree, that's not flattering. Or if the last publication was condemned by critics, and you say "I don't care what they say, to me it was excellent", that might be "sucking up" but not flattering.

So "flattering" and "sucking up" are somehow related, but there are huge differences.

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