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When I give for free something to someone, can I simply consider it as a present or a gift and it is a matter of style only?

If I'm not mistaken, in the past I was told that there's a difference between them (obviously in the context of giving someone something for free), but I don't remember what it is.

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    In general they are synonymous. In some cases one works better than the other, especially since "present" has multiple meanings. To quote from "Kung Fu Panda": Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift, that's why they call it the present – Andrew Mar 12 '18 at 21:08
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    @Andrew, I wonder who deserves the attribution for that quote. The Black-Eyed Peas used it in a song for the movie "Knight and Day" and the Internet claims Eleanor Roosevelt said it. It's one of those quotes that's been used so much and on on so many motivational posters, cards, and messages that its true attribution may be lost to time. (Making Kung Fu Panda as good as any other :-) ) – JBH Mar 12 '18 at 22:33
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    A friend of mine once told me that on his first day in elementary school, they had one more students than they had desks. So the teacher got an extra chair and told him, "Sit here for the present". Meaning, of course, until we can find a desk for you. He said he was so well-behaved all day, and was very disappointed when she never gave him the present. – Jay Mar 13 '18 at 0:56
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    See also, donation - a gift of money, usually given to a cause or organization. Money that is given to a cause might be called a gift or donation but would not be called a present. @Jay That is a story about the fictional young girl Ramona Quimby, age 8, written about in a series of books by Beverly Cleary. In the same book, so also mishears the words to "The Star Spangled Banner". – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '18 at 13:30
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    @ToddWilcox Except my friend Greg told me that story in the mid-1970s, and "Ramona Quimby Age 8" was not published until 1981. It's certainly possible that it didn't really happen to Greg, that he was just putting a joke in the first person. Maybe it's a joke that was floating around back then and both Greg and Mrs Cleary got it from some other source. It's not like I went to any effort to verify the story -- or like I'm going to go to any effort now. :-) I hope you're happy now that you've crushed my faith in the honesty of an old friend. :-O – Jay Mar 13 '18 at 15:01
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In many cases they are synonyms, however a present is usually something that the giver has deliberately selected for the recipient. You can also call this a gift, but the word gift can be used for less selective things as well.

If I buy a box of chocolates and give it to my mother on her birthday, then that could equally well be called a present or a gift.

However, if a fast-food restaurant is giving away a toy in every child's meal, then that could be described as a "free gift with every purchase," but you would probably not call it a present from the restaurant, because the restaurant did not specifically select a personalized toy for each child.

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    My initial reaction to the question was "they're completely synonymous" but you're right. It would be a little weird if McDonald's were to call their giveaways "presents". – Kevin Mar 13 '18 at 12:45
  • Wouldn't we also call cash and gift cards gifts and not presents? I don't think I've heard someone say "I gave her a present of $100", but I hear gift all of the time, as in gift card, of course. – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '18 at 13:27
  • Hmm, I'd never thought about this. It could be that we've just gotten used to businesses choosing "gift" and there's no actual reason that either is better than the other. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 13 '18 at 13:29
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The etymology of "gift" relates to something given to another person. This would be something freely given, regardless of the relationship between the two people, and not necessarily for any reason. Indeed, there may be no other specific person involved ("she has a gift to play the piano," "it was a gift from the company," etc.) In most cases of modern usage, "present" would be more appropriately expressed as "gift."

The etymology of the noun "present" in the context of "to give someone a present" relates to something presented to another person, such as an award or commendation. It is implied (and here's the fun part) that the presenter is present when the present is presented. ("It was a present from his father," "she received the present from her supervisor," etc.) The word is so much more complex than "gift" that it is little wonder over time the two have become colloquially synonymous.

Thanks to that colloquial usage, the difference between the words is subjective.

  • "Birthday gift" and "birthday present" are synonymous.

  • A wealthy individual or organization would give a "gift" to a charity (or a "donation" or even a "presentation"), but never a "present." In this very formal, business context, "present" is inappropriate.

As I think about this, I wonder if "present" can be considered a slang term, an informalization of "to present" or "presentation." It is, perhaps, because of this that you generally do not hear it used on formal occasions.

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A gift can be (but does not have to be) something very grand, such as a $50million contribution to a university from an illustrious alumnus. A present is usually something more modest and personal, between two people.

A gift can be large or small, public or private.

A present is rarely grand, and is usually between two people and is a token of affection, often on a special occasion.

He gave his wife a gift|present on her birthday.

The alumnus gave the university a large gift.

The alumnus gave the university a large present. not idiomatic; the word "present" would be unusual there

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The meanings of the nouns "present" and "gift" are very similar.

"Gift" has some abstract meanings that are not shared with "present":

GOAL! A gift for #LFC in the opening few minutes. @22mosalah keeps his cool and finishes for his 20th @premierleague goal of the season.

Spurs did not actually give Liverpool a present. They made a defensive error so the goal was very easy to score. You could not replace "gift" with "present" in this example.

When we give the gift of kindness, we're choosing to be the best version of ourselves.

Again in an abstract sense, use "gift".

On the other hand

The kids were downstairs and ready to open their presents before their parents were even out of bed.

In a very concrete sense of a box with a gift in it, use "present".

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Present means something presented.

Gift is an ancient past participle of given, i.e. a thing given.

So, they are about as exact synonyms as you can get. If something is not handed over in person it could be argued that present is inappropriate, but it hardly matters. It could still be presented by someone other than the buyer, after all. This is most likely to apply to a "leaving present", such as from co-workers.

It does seem there are conventions, e.g. Christmas and Birthday presents; and we always use gifts to mean talents, but in that case it's partly because the equivalent presented things would be a bit of a mouthful, and partly because you don't receive those at a presentation, whereas seasonal gifts most people do receive in person (even if from the postman, there's usually an unwrapping :o)).

Yes, it's largely a matter of style.

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