Definition by Dictionary.com
to abstain from an impulse to say or do something (often followed by from):

Synonyms: abstain, avoid

Instance without a verb: I refrain from alcohol.

Instance with a verb: The future generation will reap the best results of civilisation by refraining from repeating mistakes of the past.

^it would be grammatically wrong if repeat is omitted, even though in both context it still make sense and mean same thing

PS: I know what is wrong and right, but I am looking for the constructive explanation behind this.

  • 6
    Personally, I would use refrain with a verb and abstain with a noun, so I don't see them as exact synonyms. I'm a native speaker but I don't have a good explanation for that. Jul 9, 2017 at 6:23
  • 5
    You can certainly omit the gerund-participle "repeating" here. The context makes the meaning clear without it. However, as a matter of style, it may be more effective to include it as a way of emphasizing that the mistakes are a continuing problem. (In English, it is idiomatic to "abstain", and not to "refrain" from alcohol. We refrain from an action like drinking, not from the substance that is drunk. The swearing off of strong drink, or any of the standard vices, is commonly called "abstinence") Jul 9, 2017 at 7:00
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    refrain from mistakes is a misuse of "refrain" on a semantic level. We refrain from doing things that we might like to do, or refrain from doing things which we might feel we have the freedom or the right to do, because we think better of it. He refrained from taking another piece of cake. She refrained from revealing the secret. The parent refrained from punishing the child. abstain from an impulse also strikes my ear as very odd, another misuse. That which is abstained from is a practice, or act, something we do, or the object of such an act. We don't do impulses.
    – TimR
    Jul 9, 2017 at 11:50
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo You can edit comments. This is my 3rd time receiving notification from same comment 😂. Edit: Just a disclaimer, I’m asking this because a friend made this mistake and I’m trying to figure out his grammatical error and explain to him instead of saying “You’re wrong. Why? Because it’s like that.–“
    – XPMai
    Jul 9, 2017 at 11:51
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    @XPMai: You should refrain from chastising the people who are offering answers to your question. It is bad form. I do edit comments. Sometimes I run into the arbitrary size limitation or hit the arbitrary 5 minute limit which prevents me from making the desired change, and am forced either to leave things as they are or to delete and recreate.
    – TimR
    Jul 9, 2017 at 11:56

1 Answer 1


To summarise the comments :

You refrain from doing something (a verb) in order to please someone else, whereas you abstain from an indulgent thing or activity (a noun or verb) because of a personal conviction that it is wrong or bad for you.

He refrained from humming during the sermon.
She abstained from alcohol during her pregnancy.

Language is formed by customary use, so the only explanation for this usage is "because that is the custom in this country."

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