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According to Collins dictionary, "a thief" generally refers to anyone who steals.

What is the difference between thief, robber and burglar?

Anyone that steals can be called a thief. A robber often uses violence or the threat of violence to steal things from places such as banks or shops.

They caught the armed robber who raided a supermarket.

A burglar breaks into houses or other buildings and steals things.

The average burglar spends just two minutes inside a house.

But I have a feeling that a thief is someone who steals things secretly. So, I don't agree with the above definition.

Say, Bob steals things secretly and Bin uses violence to take things from people.

I would say Bob is a thief and Bin is a robber.

Do we also say "Bin is a thief"?

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    Anyone who steals is a thief, but Oxford Dictionaries does say 'especially by stealth'. The other terms refer to theft in particular circumstances. Jan 21 at 11:23
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    If someone brazenly steals something in front of your face, you might say "You're a thief!" So secrecy is not required. Jan 21 at 18:03
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    Honestly, the average person probably couldn't even tell you the difference between a robber, burglar, or thief. They're generally treated as vaguely synonymous outside of formal writing and speech.
    – Hearth
    Jan 21 at 20:21
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    If you're chasing someone, "Stop, thief!" is what you'd yell, not "Stop, robber!" Jan 21 at 22:58
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    To me a thief is someone who steals things regularly and it's a character trait / flaw of kleptomaniacs, and becomes a profession if you know how to pick locks and crack safes. Anyone can mug, rob, or burglarize. But if there's a safe or a vault door, you're going to need a Thief, 1981 (it's a really good movie).
    – Mazura
    Jan 22 at 3:28

6 Answers 6

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Thief is an over-arching word that covers both a robber and a burglar.

A google "define" search (Put "Define robber" or "Define burglar" into google or chrome address bar) defines both robber and burglar based on the actions of robbery and burglary. These definitions refer to Oxford Languages

The same source draws a distinction between the two in that robbery is an offence against a person, whereas burglary targets a building.

Robbery

the action of taking property unlawfully from a person or place by force or threat of force.

Burglary

illegal entry of a building with intent to commit a crime, especially theft.

Both actions are theft, meaning the broader term thief could be used in both cases and in your example.

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    Theft is the overarching term but sometimes it occurs as a separate thing. As a rule of thumb that which is not robbery or burglary is theft. If I leave my bicycle leaning against my garage and you walk into my yard and steal it, that is neither burglary nor robbery. That would be described as theft or the more poetic thievery.
    – EllieK
    Jan 21 at 14:09
  • There is another term that is used in the US , which combines is a robbery during a burglary : "Hot Prowler" .
    – crasic
    Jan 22 at 1:28
  • See also "sneak thief," who, according to MW "steals whatever is readily available without using violence or forcibly breaking into buildings"
    – A C
    Jan 22 at 3:24
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    That "distinction" is one I haven't seen in practice (at least in the various places in the US I've lived over the past 50 years). For instance, if someone comes home and finds their home was broken into and stuff is gone, they will almost certainly say "We've been robbed!" rather than "We've been burgled!". But of course no "force or threat of force" was used. Outside of the legal system, there is really no such distinction, and the "burglary"-based terms are almost never used.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 22 at 23:17
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    @T.E.D. My experience in the UK is the opposite - it would always be either "we've been burgled" or "we've had a break-in". Since most people are only likely to encounter robbery in the form of being mugged, and would then use that word, here the most common context for being "robbed" seems to be unlucky sports results :) Jan 23 at 12:43
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There's the legal definitions: both robbery and burglary are types of theft.

So legally every robber is a thief.

But in general English there is both a distinction and an overlap. Since there are special words for "robber" and "burglar", if someone fits those specific categories, it is better to use the more specific term.

On the other hand, there is a lot of misuse of the terms robber, burglar and thief. This is why dictionaries need to explain the difference. Lots of native speakers make "mistakes" using these words.

However the dictionary is correct, at least in so far as the technical meaning of the words. Anybody who steals can be called a thief, but it may be better to use a more precise term if one is available.

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I’d say for both cases, you could use both words, but I feel as if saying ‘thief’ does imply that it was done in a more sneaky way; in contrast to ‘robber’ being more with violence and not trying to hide it.

Again, you could use both, but you would get your message clearer by using the specific word.

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    Yes, agreed, "thief" has more sneaky connotations, for me, too. Robbery is a type of theft legally, but it would sound strange to many people to use "thief" to describe someone who made you give them your wallet, instead of pick-pocketing it, for example. (The line gets blurry when describing stealing from a store after hours: many people would describe a "smash and grab" as a robbery, while they might not for a case where the thieves disabled an alarm and picked a lock, or had a key made. e.g. "jewel thief" or "art thief" is a common movie archetype) Jan 23 at 6:31
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Interestingly, Merriam-Webster doesn't even have a main entry for robber.

I'm not sure that is justified; children's and even adults' folk tales of robbers in grubby outfits with a beard and a large hat are witness of a past where civilized places were islands in a world of danger, including danger from fellow men.

A robber in this sense is not simply someone who robs, which can be a simple synonym for stealing: "The father in law robbed her of her inheritance" is simply a dramatic way of saying he stole it from her. But that does not mean that he is a robber, in the folk sense: He is probably a well-dressed, educated man.

In a more logical, legal sense indeed all robbers are thieves: They take what they don't own from others. That plain vanilla thieves, as opposed to robbers, often act in secrecy is almost a tautology: You are only a plain vanilla thief if you don't break into a house, which would make you the special flavor of thief called a burglar; and if you don't take it from somebody with violence, which would make you a the special flavor called a robber.

But you only get away without using violence if nobody noticed; if you are found out you either abandon your endeavors or you must use force, in both cases losing the "plain vanilla thief" status.

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I would say, a thief is more of the pickpocket type, and doesn't have a big target, but just steals as they go, but burglars have a house or place they want to rob, not just walk around and steal as they go.

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I think, that those are 3 different axes, but many times commited in combination.

  • Thief - get something, what is not his/her.
  • Robber - attack or threat with violence a person (with intent usually to get something)
  • Burglar - breaks to house (with intent to rob or steal)

But there may be situations ... say I travel by train far away, went asleap and Thief got all my lugages, wallet, clock and jewelry.

I woke in some town with nothing, just clothes, then in dark corner was attacked by Robber saying "money or life" while poiniting gun at me - I told him my story and showed him, there is nothing to get, so he mutter "your clothes sinks and ammo is expensive, run away and do not show again" - it was totally Robbery, but he did not steal anything (so not Thief).

More over Burglar went to my old flat by climbing wall, broking window and kicking down doors, just to see, that there is nothing inside, because I moved few days ago, taking everything (include light bulbs) to my new house. It was burglary for sure, but again, he did not steal anything, as there was nothing of value inside. (Not Thief or Robber)

While he was looking for anything valuable, another Burglar went in and seeing his bag and hammer lying near my door, he Steal it (so this one was also a Thief but not Robber) and then sneaked away.

To be it more complicated, even another Burglar went then inside and seeing the first one still searching, he put out a gun and Robbed the first of his pocket money and hand lamp (so this one was Burglar, Robber and Thief at that time)

Have I to add next one to his misery, who is Burglar and Robber, but not Thief?


Well on other note if somebody make more wrongs at the same time, it is usual to call him mainly by the most serious crime he does. Those less serious may be cited too with the main, but rarely they are mentioned just alone.

Say a mad man broke in some house at night, splash gasolin all over and light it, so the house was burned to the ground. On the way out he took pack of cigaretes from table and smoked it, while going home. We will call him Arsonist, maybe add Burglar.

To say about him just "He is Thief" does not sound right, even if he took those cigaretes.

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