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A native English teacher is in a video making a soup, while also teaching words and phrases especially about cooking. Cooking vocabulary (see 17:05-17:10) And amongst many other phrases, he also mentioned about a phrase "to butter up someone" and gave the following sentence as an example of buttering up someone (himself in this case). He said a student might say the following in order to butter up:

That is a lovely soup you are making.

I read the sentence. The structure of the sentence seemed interesting to me, because I as a non-native speaker, I would simply think the speaker likes the smell/appearance/kind of that soup. I would not think of using such a structure, but I would probably form a simpler sentence:

You are making a lovely soup.

I wouldn't think of his structure "That is a lovely soup you are making.". Even if I did, I wouldn't imagine it having a meaning of "buttering up". I would think it is another way of saying "I like the smell of the soup" or "You are making a lovely soup".

Now, I wonder if I say to someone, "That is a beautiful hat you are wearing", am I buttering up the wearer or am I simply saying "I like your hat".

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    The phrasal verb is "to butter [someone] up" - plain "to butter" without the preposition is what you do to toast before adding the marmalade. But it's entirely a matter of opinion when "complimenting" becomes "buttering up". Feb 26, 2023 at 17:01
  • @FumbleFingers - I am reminded of the last tango I had in the French capital. Feb 26, 2023 at 20:57
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    Maria Schneider certainly didn't see that as a compliment! :( Feb 26, 2023 at 22:58
  • To butter someone up is to praise them in order to get something from them. Your other use is incorrect.
    – Lambie
    Mar 3, 2023 at 16:32

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You can't tell from the words alone if someone is "buttering someone up".

That is because "buttering someone up" means lying to them to obtain something. There is no grammatical marker of a lie!

If I say "Yunus, your English grammar is very good" is it honest or a lie... Only I know for sure. If someone says "That is a lovely soup", and they honestly believe it, then they are not buttering anybody up. But if they say "That is a lovely soup", or "You are making a lovely soup" when they know it is a lie, and they are only saying it to flatter the person and obtain something, that is "buttering up".

As for the structure. It is more natural to talk about the soup when describing it, not indirectly talk about the soup by talking about the person making the soup. So it is natural to say "That is a lovely soup (you are making)" instead of "You are making a lovely soup". Put the topic (that soup) as the subject, whenever possible.

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  • Somebody insightfully said that 'flattery is a gift which we bestow upon people, but just praise is a debt that we owe to them'. Feb 26, 2023 at 20:04
  • By the way, why do we say "THAT is ...." instead of "THIS is ....? In other words, can I also say "This is a lovely soup you are making.?"
    – Yunus
    Feb 26, 2023 at 21:02
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    I think you can butter someone up without lying to them. If your sincere praise is offered in hopes that you will receive something in return, that could still be called buttering up.
    – EllieK
    Mar 3, 2023 at 13:48
  • @yunus We use that for things that are "remote" from us in some way. Because the other person is making the soup, it is their soup, so I would say "That is a..." If I were talking about a soup I was making, I would say "This is a..."
    – stangdon
    Jun 6, 2023 at 19:54
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To butter [someone] up is an idiomatic expression, a phrasal verb in fact. It's something we do to a person, not an inanimate object. It means to give someone lots of praise/compliments in the hope of gaining their help or support in some way.

It's more than simply complementing someone. There is an ulterior motive behind it. If you butter up the cook, it's probably because you want some of the soup! If you were to butter up the wearer of a hat, I would suspect you want their hat. If you don't want their hat, then you are simply complementing them on their choice of hat.

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