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It is obvious that shut and close are very similar in meaning. However, while learning English as non-native (a long time ago) the teacher underlined that the two words are not identical in meaning.

I was unable to find a "clear" explanation about this difference yet - so I am still confused.

I found:

  • the definitions of the words;
  • how the words are similar;

I did not find: how are these words different.


Edit: Based on the answers and on the comments, is it safe to assume that there is no "general" rule about when to use "shut" and "close"? And that one must learn the "correct" verb for each situation separately?

11

You can shut the window
You can close the door
You can close a highway
But you cannot shut the store

The verb close is an antonym for open. Therefore, we can say things like:

  • Why did you close (or shut) the window? Please open it again.
  • Please shut (or close) the door. Otherwise, the cat might get out.

In addition to doors, windows, briefcases, and cages, though, we can also open and close things like highways, runways, and restaurants. In this sense of the word, shut does not function like an antonym – at least, not in American English (the following examples don’t seem to hold true in British English, based on some informative comments beneath my original answer):

  • Oak Street is closed due to flooding. We will have to find another way there.
    (NOT: Oak Street is shut...)
  • The restaurant is closed. Let’s go find someplace else to eat.
    (NOT: The restaurant is shut...)

As an aside, the phrasal verb shut down can be used in a similar way as closed, but that often connotes a longer period of inaccessibility:

  • That restaurant was shut down three months ago.

Put another way, a pub may have a closing time, but it will not have a shutting time.

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    Your English must be different from mine. While I agree that "close" is more common in those cases, "shut the road/shop/airport" seem perfectly normal to me.Searching the GloWbE corpus, I get 60 instances of "close the road" (including 18 in the UK) against 8 of "shut the road" (6 in the UK, the other two in Nigeria and the Philippines), and similar patterns with "airport". (It's a bit hard to compare "store", because in the relevant sense, the BrE word for "store" is "shop", which isn't much used in that sense in AmE. But I think I see the same pattern. – Colin Fine Mar 13 at 11:31
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    We certainly say shut for all those meanings of close or closed, in my experience, in British English. – SamBC Mar 13 at 12:02
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    (except "shutting time", but "closing time" is just a specific phrase; people often ask "when do you shut?" in shops) – SamBC Mar 13 at 12:42
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    To lend some weight to the usage of shut in those scenarios: the phrase "the way is shut" features pretty prominently in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkein had a degree in English with first class honours, and is known for his understanding and command of language. If he thought it was a valid use of the word, I'm inclined to agree with him. – anaximander Mar 13 at 13:13
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    Things that can be "closed" that can't be "shut" can still typically be "shut down". – Shufflepants Mar 13 at 15:50
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The words have a sense which is completely identical, as seen in "shut/close the door". However, close can be used in another way, too.

If we accelerate, we can close the gap.

Essentially, close can be used to represent openings becoming smaller or objects getting closer. Usually based on the phrase close the gap. It can also be used metaphorically, as in "close the gender pay gap". You cannot use shut for this sense. Likewise, shut is used in certain instances where close would not be acceptable:

I've had enough of your lip, just shut up now!

(Shut up meaning "stop talking"; lip in this instance meaning impudent speech. Shut up is idiomatic in most if not all varieties of English; lip in this instance may be British-specific. Such instances of shut might be considered set phrases.)

Another thing to be wary of is that close has a homograph (same spelling, different pronunciation) meaning "near".

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    Likewise we can "close the deal" - make the deal final (per Webster's Fourth Edition). Shut is also used in many cases for added emphasis - "Now Jericho was tightly shut up..." and "Please, just shut up" vs "The gates of Jericho were closed" and "Please, close your mouth" (which might not be in reference to speaking but say maybe chewing with your mouth open). There are many uses for both that are the same, indeed Webster's Fourth does have one of the definitions of close being shut. But each has alternate usages that aren't related the other. – wolfsshield Mar 13 at 13:53
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    I always also assumed "close" carried a softer tone whereas "shut" is more harsh. – aaaaaa Mar 13 at 14:54
  • There are definitely dialects of British English where "shut" is preferred over "close" in pretty much all instances where it's applicable. – SamBC Mar 13 at 15:14
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    lip as a metaphor for talking back is commonly used in the US as well. – Justin Lardinois Mar 13 at 21:11
  • @JustinLardinois: Thanks, learn something new every day. Whenever I imagine anyone saying it, it's in a regional English accent. – SamBC Mar 13 at 21:58
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It would be hard to come up with a comprehensive list. You just have to pay attention to what meanings each as, and see which ones are had by only one. If you want to replace one with the other, you have to check whether the meaning survives. One are to be careful in is phrasal verbs. "shut up" is generally used to mean "be quiet", while "close up", if it's used at all, is used for things like filling in holes. "shut out" means to exclude, while "close out" is used in liquidation sales. "shut in" refers to agoraphobics, "close in" means to get closer.

Also, the past tense and past participle of "shut" are just "shut", while the past tense of "close" is "closed". So you shouldn't say "The door has been shutted" or "The door has been close".

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From other answers we can see that English speakers do not always agree about when these words are used, or should be used, even if we only consider their use in isolation rather than in expressions such as shut up and close down. I'm hard pressed to explain why I would more usually say

the airport was shut

rather than

the airport was closed

though I would view both as formally correct. This may be due to my Yorkshire origins: shut sounds stronger in an Yorkshire accent.

If we go back to origins of words I note this etymology site has

Old English scyttan "to put (a bolt) in place so as to fasten a door or gate, bolt, shut to; discharge, pay off," from West Germanic *skutjan (source also of Old Frisian schetta, Middle Dutch schutten "to shut, shut up, obstruct")

and this sense of not only closing, but fixing closed accords with my personal feeling of shut as being more forceful than close.

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    Indeed, one may close a window, but to also shutter it is to add protection against storms and/or wild animals, so "shut" is stronger than "closed". The manager closed the restaurant at night, but the health inspector shut it down. – Monty Harder Mar 13 at 19:46
  • That is interesting. As an American hearing the airport was shut sounds wrong. Hearing it was shut down sounds fine, though that implies a more out-of-the-ordinary and/or permanent closing than just saying the airport was closed. – Aaron R. Mar 13 at 20:33
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    I agree that in US usage (specifically New England) shut is stronger. It is also more physical. An airport can be closed in a strictly administrative sense: no airplanes are allowed to land or take off. When I hear that the airport is shut, I picture someone trying to open the terminal door and finding it locked. Similarly, if I hear that an airport was "shut down" I picture physical steps such as parking equipment, turning off lights, and sending non-essential employees home. – David42 Mar 14 at 13:43

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