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When I saw her fight him, I was surprised at how strong she was.

When I saw her fight him, I was surprised by how strong she was.

Do both the sentences mean the same thing regardless of which preposition we use in them?

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3 Answers 3

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According to Don LePan's "The Broadview Book of Common Errors in English", the grammar rule here is the difference between the two is 1. Surprised at = the person is disappointed or scandalized whereas 2. Surprised by = shocked at unexpected outcome.

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    There may be some substance to this in some cases (in some dialects, at some times, with some people, or whatever). But I think LePan might be overstating this by including it as an "error". It sounds to me like a prescriptivist attempt to draw a distinction where I wouldn't have found one in practice. Oct 4, 2017 at 23:44
  • @TimPederick I agree. I often came across both prepositions and in various contexts and basically they both worked in an identical way. Dec 5, 2017 at 11:44
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In my experience, there is no difference. "Surprised by" is more common, but both will be understood the same way.

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  1. When I saw her fight him, I was surprised (=adjective) at how strong she was. (Active in meaning, "False Passive" in structure.) [Note: false passive is no passive at all. It's just a theory of a certain school of linguists. As the meaning is active, the voice is active. Just replace "surprised" with "happy" and you will know why.]

  2. When I saw her fight him, I was surprised (=past participle) by how strong she was. (Passive voice) [Note: This time you can't replace "surprised" with "happy". I hope you get it.]

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