I can never know for sure which word to use outside foresting and foraging.

I've always thought them to be interchangeable most of the time.

However, when it comes to berries or fruit we use gather and can't use collect. And when speak we about items or stuff like coins we use collect.

What about these cases:

  • I need to gather/collect information.
  • If you gather/collect everyone we will start the meeting.
  • He went there to gather/collect junk.

So, in which case do we use collect and in which gather?

  • Now that we have some real answers, comments have been moved to chat.
    – ColleenV
    May 23, 2017 at 22:53

4 Answers 4


Collect X basically implies you will keep or contain X after obtaining X. Gather X may not necessarily have this implication, you usually have to express it or suggest it via context.

Because we usually don't force people against their will or put them in containers, gather is often used with people, unless we are transporting them.

We are gathered here today to talk about the monorail.

I've collected a few people and they are ready [sounds like the people aren't real people, but a manager may say this in treating people as resources]

This device gathers rainwater [implying rainwater flows through it]

This device collects rainwater [when it's done raining, the water stays]

If the X's you are wanting to aggregate exist over a wide area, gather helps to suggest that.

We walked around the plains and gathered berries.

Using collect in this situation implies there is only a few or exact known number of X.

We walked around the plains and collected berries [these must have been some special berries.]

Collect X can also mean "to keep X as part of a collection" or "to receive something as payment, especially to repay a debt."

  • Your examples concerning the rainwater devices has reminded me of power collectors, why don't we call them power gatherers? May 9, 2017 at 13:22
  • Maybe ... this may sound silly, but "gatherer" is a hard word to say without muddying the end of it, so maybe it would not be favored by technical contexts.
    – LawrenceC
    May 9, 2017 at 14:08
  • 1
    What about collecting/gathering dust or to collect/gather one's thoughts? Although those are idioms, sometimes it seems like the two words are interchangeable and sometimes we choose one over the other. Oh and then there is woolgathering, which maybe isn't directly related, but it has an interesting origin.
    – ColleenV
    May 10, 2017 at 10:51
  • Thanks to Shakespeare, we gather rosebuds, and yet we would almost certainly collect sleds named Rosebud.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 13, 2017 at 20:31
  • X collects dust -> X "keeps" the dust and has dust on it. Gathering one's thoughts -> You have thoughts roaming in a "wide area" (at least my mind is an abyss of randomness sometimes) and you are trying to corral them. Because dust exists in a "wide area" (the air) I think "X collects dust" works too.
    – LawrenceC
    May 13, 2017 at 22:09

@LawrenceC already did a very good answer that hits the most important points.

I'll just make a side note that Germanic gather and Latinish collect began life as exactly the same concept ("bring together", "join together", "accumulate") and are still treated as such. OP felt that way at first and people absolutely do say "collect berries" and "collect sb into one's arms".

We treat them a bit differently because of the particular extended senses they picked up over the years. Some expressions or contexts seemed more natural with one or the other and became set phrases or uses. As those built up, those senses influenced further differentiation. The differences follow the general path of Germanic and Latinish pairs in English: we associate the Germanic one with earthier, mundane, poorer, and more agricultural topics and the Latin one with more monied, professional, erudite, educated, and aristocratic senses.

Primarily, the difference stems from the use of "collect" to round up money for the church and king: You "gather" fruit(s), lambs, tribute, flowers, ground, wind, wheat but you "collect" money, tax(es), revenue, rents. You call collect and collect individual things and people from some particular location.

Once British aristocrats started accumulating individual scientific, literary, and eccentric possessions in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was natural for them to speak of their "collections". That's the distinction Lawrence focuses on and it's the major one people make consciously. "To gather oneself" is to assemble one's resources, usually for an expected challenge; "to collect oneself" is to reassemble a damaged, shaken, or raging self into a coherent whole.

Secondarily, there are a wider range of minor extended uses that the earthier "gather" picked up in the course of things. Even though this ngram may suggest otherwise, we "gather ground"; when we "collect", it's actually "ground water", "ground rent(s)", &c. that are being pooled. When we speak of the knowledge we have gained and thought about, we say we have "gathered" some point and only use "collect" as a somewhat obnoxious affectation. Architects and tailors "gather" something to make it tighter. It takes still other senses with prepositions such as "gather up", "around", "into", "on".

There are a few special extended senses of "collect" apart from "picking up" money from debtors, items from storage, or individuals from wherever they're waiting. As you'd expect, they're mostly upper-class uses: watchmaking, horseriding, and drawing attention.

  • A great research and supplement to the other answers. May 13, 2017 at 19:17
  • Nice, a beautiful, answer! Very ELU-like. May 16, 2017 at 7:49

The answers by LawrenceC and Teacher KSHuang are both good and seem to highlight important points, but for me, don't quite nail it. It might be just semantics, but I'll take a stab at it. My answer will overlap the others. BTW, this is not meant to denigrate lly's good answer, it's just that answer has a different focus.

Gather refers just to bringing close together things that are spread out.

  • It does not imply any form of organization or order.
  • It refers to many items aggregated in a non-selective way; the focus is dealing with them in the aggregate rather than individually, and just moving them all to one place.
  • It does not address possession or retention of the items, or what you do with them afterwards.

You can gather people in a room (herd them to a common place), gather berries into a pile or bucket (and potentially just leave them there), gather information (refers to just pulling diverse sources to one place before processing or organizing it), gather fabric (pull spread-out fabric closer together), etc.

Collect could potentially be associated with gathering, but if it is, it would refer to what you do after gathering. The characteristics of "collect" are:

  • You retain the items.
  • It involves selection criteria, you are dealing with specific examples. It can be a single item or multiple items, but "collecting" is focused on selected items rather than a "mass quantity".
  • There is often some form of organization or structure applied to the collected items.

If you collect arriving people, it is those specific people. You don't just herd them together and leave them there, you retain them (bring them with you).

Take your example of getting people to a meeting. Say everybody but John is in your vicinity. You might say, "lets all gather in the conference room for the meeting. Bill, will you please go and collect John?"

If you collect information, it is specific, targeted information, and you save it (retain it), in an organized or structured way.

If you collect fabric (as opposed to gathering it), there are specific criteria for examples you retain, and you organize them in some way.

LawrenceC's rainwater example is explained well. Gathering it just aggregates it; control and direction rather than retention because it won't stay aggregated on its own. Collecting it retains a specific sample (the water you manage to get into in the container).

For your junk example, a lot would depend on the situation. If you have an actual junk collection (i.e., save specific kinds of items), you might go somewhere to find items to add. In that case, you might say that you "went to collect junk", although people might be more likely to say that they "went to find junk to add to their collection".

Otherwise, if you went somewhere to simply make junk at that location neat by pushing it into one pile, you could say you "went to gather junk". If you were going for the purpose of taking specific junk with you, you could say you "went to collect junk". You might have to weigh which aspect most characterizes the activity. Is the "possession" aspect or the specificity of the items more relevant to the case?

This is an example where either term might apply. "Gather" isn't limited to one source location, and doesn't really address where the aggregate ends up. If your purpose is to aggregate the junk, load it on your truck, and drop it at a dump site, "gather" would apply because you're dealing with the junk en masse and any retention is incidental.

If you gather berries at two locations and then bring them home, you've still "gathered" berries, not "collected" them. The basis for distinction in the berries case is that the essential activity was aggregating berries on a mass basis. If the purpose was to look for very specific berries, "collect" would be more applicable. In some other case, different criteria might be the determining ones.

Not every usage case will perfectly fit one definition to the exclusion of the other. Sometimes it is a matter of which word is a closer fit. For example, gathering people in a room may involve a specific set of people, not just a random collection of people. Collecting water doesn't involve organizing it, and you need to take the concept of "specific water" loosely. Some cases come down to which term best captures the essential properties of the case.


To me, the difference between the two words is like looking through a two-way mirror.

The act of gathering and collecting is the mirror and the verb we choose to use depends on which side of the mirror we are standing on.

When we use "gather," we are looking at the item in question from the perspective of prior to being collected.

  • In addition, there is (often) the subtle intimation that the items being collected are scattered.

When we use "collect," we are looking at the item in question from the perspective of the item after it has been collected.

  • And in my head, I will see databases, catalogues, collections of items and things that have already been put into neat little rows and computated and calculated and perused for their worth.

For example:

"I collect berries." vs. "I gather berries."

  1. Upon hearing the latter, I see an image in my head of the berries as being scattered around on various bushes so I need to go around to them and collect them.

    • The berries, then, in this case, have yet to be gathered.
  2. Upon hearing the former, I see an image in my head of a collection of berries, possibly catalogued and dried with each in its own place.

    • The berries, then, in this case have already been gathered and collected in my mind and even labeled.

"I collect information." vs. "I gather information."

Again, upon hearing the former, I see databases, privacy guards and invasions of privacy, marketing lists, etc.

  • Thus, in my head, my data has already been collected and used and sold and re-sold.

When I hear the second statement, I imagine someone bending over a microscope examining a slide, sitting at their computer scanning through websites, poring over books at a library and doing the general act of information-gathering.

  • The information has yet to be gathered and is awaiting its discovery by me.

"To collect people" vs. "To gather people" (together)

Upon hearing the first one, I imagine myself at the curb at the airport and seeing a friend I haven't seen in a long time and giving him a hug or a client or a VIP who is visiting and I am opening the door for her as she gets into my car.

A creepier version might be that we are collecting people as if they were baseball cards and we want to display them in our collection of peoples from different places, etc.

  • In other words, the collecting has been done already or at least I am imagining the moment of collection.

As for the second one, perhaps everyone is at their desk at an office and we need to gather together for the weekly meeting or we gather together from the four corners of the world to mourn the passing of a loved one or witness the marriage of family and friends.

  • The gathering and collecting has yet to finish and if I'm gathering everyone for the meeting, I'm still running around getting everyone and if we are gathering together for an event, I imagine people still flying in.

But honestly, that's just my two cents as inspired by @EdwinAshworth's answer on English Language & Usage. What do you think :O :D?

  • As an aside, yes, computated is an obsolete word, but I still just like the way it sounded in that sentence, you know :D? May 10, 2017 at 10:09
  • Taking into account all that I know about gather and collect you maybe be absolutely right that the former means to get (acquire) while the latter means to possess (obtain). When we gather information we acquire it by research. When we collect information we obtain it by buying it from people for instance. May 10, 2017 at 13:17
  • Heh, @SovereignSun, that hadn't been my point per se, but it doesn't seem invalid :). Perhaps posting an answer of your own to contribute to the greater good? May 11, 2017 at 8:42
  • I am too shy to do so, please feel free to include this research in your answer. May 11, 2017 at 8:48
  • 1
    Honestly, I am! But I just think it's better if you edit your answer than I answer my own question. May 11, 2017 at 10:52

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .