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When I was chatting with a native English speaker, I said

San Francisco is near the "sea".

He told me, he would say

San Francisco is near the "ocean"

Cambridge Dictionary gives this definition about "sea"

the salty water that covers a large part of the surface of the earth, or a large area of salty water, smaller than an ocean, that is partly or completely surrounded by land

and this for ocean

a very large area of sea

Is it a matter of style, formal vs. informal of some kind of grammatical rule?

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  • Neither, San Francisco is near the Bay! (San Francisco Bay, to be precise)
    – No Name
    Jan 4 at 19:36

1 Answer 1

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There are specific places that are capital-O Oceans (the Pacific Ocean) and capital-S Seas (the Mediterranean Sea). However, the terms ‘the ocean’ and ‘the sea’, when used without a specific body of water in mind, are largely interchangeable.

Generally we might use ‘the sea’ when thinking of it as a smaller or less desolate expanse than when using ‘the ocean’ — when you can see land on the other side, you might call it ‘the sea’ rather than ‘the ocean’ — but the usage of the terms is mostly based on personal preference, and perhaps on cultural quirks; apparently in British English, one always goes swimming in ‘the sea’, never ‘the ocean’.

There may also be other connotations, depending on where the speaker is from; Britain is surrounded by capital-S Seas, whereas America is surrounded by capital-O Oceans, and ‘ocean’ comes from Latin and so is used in more technical terms, like ‘oceanography’, but in regular use in English, there’s very little practical difference.

However, it must be noted that for individuals, their perception of the two terms can be very different based on their experiences with them and their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but that the differences are small and vary from person to person. Hope that helps!

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  • Thank you. "when used without an object", what does "object" mean here? I am aware of the concept in terms of verbs, for instance, I am writing a letter, "a letter" is the object of the verb "write".
    – WXJ96163
    Apr 1, 2020 at 5:46
  • @WXJ96163 That’s incorrect, sorry. I’ll edit it. Should be ‘used generally’ or ‘used without a named body of water’. Apr 1, 2020 at 5:51
  • Thanks for your comprehensive explanation. As to the question in my OP, British english speaker would say 'San is Francisco near the "sea"' while American english speaker would say 'San is Francisco near the "ocean"', right?
    – WXJ96163
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:27
  • @WXJ96163 It’s hard to say, and probably varies from person to person more than it does from British English to American English. As a rough guide it might work, but every once in a while someone is guaranteed to surprise you. Apr 1, 2020 at 22:35

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