Lenny is strolling around the park, bored, when he notices a squirrel jumping around in a tree. He sits down on a bench to watch it.

Then something else happens somewhere else.

Back in the park, Lenny is still occupied/preoccupied, watching the squirrel with great interest.

Question: Should I use "occupied" or "preoccupied" or do either sound odd here? (I am aware of the difference between the words but I'm still not sure what would be more natural to use)

  • If Lenny is sitting on a bench watching squirrels, he isn't occupied at all. But he might be preoccupied with his thoughts. Mar 28, 2020 at 13:25

2 Answers 2


In OP's context, preoccupied is the better choice.

The pre- prefix implies already, which by further implication suggests there's something else that Lenny should be doing. Being "occupied" usually implies doing something meaningful / productive, whereas being "preoccupied" often means doing or paying attention to something relatively pointless (daydreaming, watching squirrels, etc.).

From WikiDiff...

As adjectives the difference between occupied and preoccupied is that occupied is "reserved, engaged" while preoccupied is "concerned with something else; distracted; giving one's attention elsewhere".

Here's an interesting chart showing how usage has changed over time in this area...

enter image description here

...where it seems unlikely that the real-world nature of introspection / contemplation / daydreaming would have changed all that much over the past century. So I think you can take it for granted the difference between these two words isn't as clear-cut as some people might like it to be.

  • So "preoccupied" is ok even though he really hasn't anything else he should be doing?
    – Stanion
    Mar 28, 2020 at 13:34
  • Yes. I made the point (about the "meaning" of the pre- prefix) because I figured that would make sense for most contexts where we might have to choose between the "base" word (occupied) and the "marked" form (preoccupied). You might perhaps think of pre- as implying "otherwise" or "differently" in the sense of "not actively engaged in doing anything meaningful" - but nevertheless "busy" (doing nothing in particular, but with one's attention definitely diverted by something). Mar 28, 2020 at 13:44
  • This answer is very overblown and "preoccupied" here in the OP's question would be odd indeed.
    – Lambie
    Mar 28, 2020 at 14:49
  • @Lambie: I think you're preoccupied with point-scoring! There is a significant difference in how the two forms are used today, and OP's context ("[pre-]occupied" watching a squirrel) is precisely the kind of activity that we're more likely to associate with the "derived" version today. You may see things differently, but to my mind Lenny would normally only be "occupied" in this context if "watching the squirrel" was a task that he'd been assigned to carry out for some reason. Mar 28, 2020 at 15:25
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica You must be kidding. I don't give a you-know-what about points but I do believe in tailoring answers to obvious levels of knowledge shown by OPs. The change of usage over time is really irrelevant at this level.
    – Lambie
    Mar 28, 2020 at 15:33

An answer for an English-language learner.

This is very simple:

to be occupied = to be busy

to be preoccupied = to be worried about something else.

  • Lenny is occupied watching the squirrel. = busy

  • Lenny is preoccupied about the squirrel because it looks too skinny. = worried

  • Lenny is preoccupied by other matters but he is watching the squirrel.

  • 1
    It's true that in some contexts, "preoccupation" might imply "worry". But it's just as natural to say someone's preoccupied with thinking about good things. Normally, all that matters is that the preoccupied person isn't focused on productive / relevant things. I see no reason whatsoever to suppose Lenny is actually concerned for the squirrel's well-being in the cited context. It's just holding his (probably, not particularly focused) attention. Mar 28, 2020 at 15:30
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica The definition you cite is actually saying more what I am saying: As adjectives the difference between occupied and preoccupied is that occupied is "reserved, engaged" while preoccupied is "concerned with something else; distracted; giving one's attention elsewhere".
    – Lambie
    Mar 28, 2020 at 15:35

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