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He was crying about how his mom'd beaten him.

He was crying over how his mom'd beaten him.

Do we say cry over or cry about? Are they interchangeable in similar contexts? Over and about?

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Both constructions are possible, and yes, they are mostly interchangeable. In your example, combined with "how something happened", there is, I'd say, no difference. However, if we are pairing this with nouns, there is a slight difference. For example, there is a classic phrase:

There is no use crying over spilt milk.

You cry over something when it's an object that got destroyed or that you lost.

You cry about something when it's a general source of unpleasantness or an abstract situation. E. g., you can cry about someone's insensitivity, about someone's unpleasant words, or similar things.

When someone cries about their haircut, it's not really about a destroyed object, it's a situation where a hairdresser messed up someone's haircut. However, keep in mind that this distinction between an object and a situation is not too strict; the article I linked to also says this person "cried over her hair", because the whole matter is slightly ambiguous with regard to whether it's the object we are crying over/about, or the situation in which the object was spoiled/destroyed. Because of this general uncertainty, usage of "over" and "about" will often overlap; this is why I'm saying they are mostly interchangeable.

When "cry" gets combined with a clause, it is entirely possible to view a whole situation as an "object" that gives you cause for grieving, and then you can "cry over how much you want something", "cry over how much you love something", etc.

When you are asking someone a question, the default one would be,

What are you crying about?

because this might be either an object or an abstract situation.

  • I don't buy your semantic distinction. Per this chart, over has been in decline for a long time - I suspect that since you don't hear it so often now, you're being unduly influenced by the literal sense of the antiquated set phrase ...crying over spilt milk. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 18 '18 at 13:47
  • @FumbleFingers If you take other grammatical forms, with +ing, "crying over it" is used in 1/3 of the cases; and "cried over it" almost = "about". – tenebris2020 Mar 18 '18 at 13:51
  • @FumbleFingers Given how you've recently touted a usage that was more in the vicinity of 1/6 (and where there were better-formulated reasons against than just "I don't buy it") as something that is taking over the English-speaking world, I'm not seeing your stance on this as balanced. When someone cries over how one loves burritos, or over one's hair, it's hardly antiquated usage. Daily Mail is a tabloid, for Christ's sake, not a publishing house for philosophy treatises or Catholic canon law. – tenebris2020 Mar 18 '18 at 13:57
  • I said the expression cry over spilt milk is antiquated - it's basically rooted in the scenario of a milkmaid crying because the cow's kicked over the milking pail, which obviously isn't a common situation today. But I'm not saying over isn't used at all - simply that relatively speaking, it has declined. And regardless of that, I don't think there ever was a semantic distinction based on the choice of preposition as put forward here. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 18 '18 at 14:02
  • @FumbleFingers This expression is a saying. Sayings persist over centuries despite their original context becoming obsolete. This phrase is used no less frequently today than in the 1860s. That said, "cried about a broken toy" — 2 results, "cried over a broken toy" — about 400 results. – tenebris2020 Mar 18 '18 at 14:13

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