I’m French. Could somebody explain to me the difference between the terms 'errands' and 'shopping'?

  • 6
    They are unrelated terms. What is your confusion?
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 10:45
  • 19
    They are not 'totally' unrelated, because shopping can be an errand you do for someone. They just don't mean exactly the same thing. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 13:13
  • 3
    Shopping is usually a type of errand, where you buy something(s). Dropping a letter at the post office is an errand, but isn't shopping. My French is iffy, but maybe "shopping" is "faire des achats"?
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 20:10
  • 7
    okay I got you ! and I understand what you mean in french :) we can say that « errand » is like a task to do ? And « shopping » is a kind of errand ! Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 21:53
  • 2
    @eglantine I’m guessing you asked here because your app told you that both ‘errand’ and ‘shopping’ mean course(s) in French – and your app is correct. If you look at the TLFi definition of course, you can say that ‘errand’ is definition II.A.2 (“Parcours d'une longueur déterminée et avec un but précis”), while ‘shopping’ is specifically definition II.A.2.b (“Au plur. Déplacement pour divers achats”). Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 10:51

4 Answers 4


"Errand" is a more overarching term that describes a (mostly simple) task that needs to be done. That task may be to buy something, but it doesn't have to. It could also be, for example, to deliver a message to somebody or to fetch something at some place. Typically, an errand involves that you go somewhere. So, to go to a doctor's office to make an appointment would probably be an errand, but to call the doctor's office on the phone wouldn't.

I have three errands to take care of today: I need to bring my sisters the invitation to the birthday party, I need to pick up the clothes from dry cleaner, and I need to buy candles for the birthday cake.

"Shopping", of course, is to buy something, or to look for something you might want to buy.

EDIT: A fitting French translation for errand might be course, as in « Josh fait des courses pour sa mère ».

  • 14
    Good answer. Also interesting to note that shopping may or may not be considered an errand depending on whether it is a "task" - doing the weekly grocery shopping is very likely an errand, but leisurely spending the afternoon at the mall probably is not. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 18:38
  • 3
    @NuclearHoagie - if I do my own or my family's shopping, that is not an errand, but if my mother asks me to go out and get her some gin and cigarettes, that is an errand. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 20:22
  • 6
    The trouble with using course is that faire les courses usually means to go shopping. That is presumably the reason the question was asked in the first place – des/les courses can mean either errands or shopping according to context. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 10:38
  • 8
    @MichaelHarvey why? You can run errands for yourself. Many dictionaries include wording along the lines of "often for someone else" (my emphasis). Doing so on behalf of someone else even seems (Collins) predominantly American. So if I had to get some shopping, send a parcel, and pick up a book from the library, all in one trip, that would be running errands.
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 12:25
  • 5
    @MichaelHarvey also disagree; as a native British English speaker, I include supermarket shopping for myself in "errands".
    – Muzer
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 15:47

Errands are any sort of task that you might be sent out of home (or your workplace) to do. It could be a shopping task, but it could be almost anything else too.

In my dialect (Dublin), the word used was "messages".

We kids were often sent out "to do the messages" or "on a message". It was almost (but not quite) always some sort of shopping task.

In lots of English dialects (but not mine) you might often hear of people "running errands for" someone else.

The Merriam-Webster definition is a good one.


So is the very differently worded Cambridge definition:


  • 5
    They call them 'messages' in Scotland as well. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 11:17
  • 5
    +1 for 'running'. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 11:17
  • 2
    Possibly of interest, ‘errand’ used as a noun can also refer to an oral message to be delivered (and the Proto-Germanic root word it comes from has essentially this meaning, though I’m not sure if there’s a modern German cognate). Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 20:38
  • 1
    In Northumberland and Tyneside they call them "messages" as well.
    – Flynn
    Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 19:21

A possible difference could be that between the general and the particular. An errand is any short trip to do a job or task for someone. Shopping for someone else is one kind of errand. Other types of errand are possible, such as taking a message, finding something out, collecting something from somewhere, etc.

  • @TobySpeight - aren't errands something you do for someone else? Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 12:50
  • I hear it loosely used for any small necessary job (i.e. the same as chore), but yes, I think the usual definition is that it's for someone else. Shopping for someone else is even less fun than shopping for oneself, IMHO! Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 13:10
  • 1
    IME: a "chore" is something done at home, usually something that happens regularly (washing the dishes, dusting, etc.; on a farm, they could include daily work like milking the cows). An "errand" is something done outside the home, and the term doesn't carry the "regular" connotation so much (eg., going to the post office to pick up a package would be an errand, even if it only happens a couple of times a year).
    – minnmass
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 19:55
  • @minnmass - Not all dictionaries define a chore as only something done at home. There are household chores and other types. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 20:19
  • 1
    @minnmass the dictionaries I go to first have housework (a common synonym for "chores" here in the UK) first, and the boring routine stuff second. But a close second, I'd say. Certainly something like "the systems in work make ordering supplies into a chore" seems perfectly reasonable (as well as a whinge about my afternoon!)
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 16:23

In America, we have the expression "to run errands" which I learned was a totally bizarre concept to the Europeans whom I interacted with when I lived there.

The reason was quite apparent: Europeans live in communities where all essential service providers are generally located within walking distance, whereas Americans jump into their SUVs and spend a significant portion of their day racing across town, hoping to accomplish everything necessary for our hectic lives in one go, so that maybe we can rest tomorrow. It rarely works out (resting, I mean).

Errands, therefore, are a mostly a product of the automobile-centric suburban lifestyle.

Whereas a European may walk to the shop for bread and milk, then walk home, stopping at the corner pharmacy on the way, then later head to the ATM across the street to get money to take to the doctor at the polyclinic on the next block over, then walk home again, then in the evening head out to grab a sack of potatoes from the vendor selling them out of the back of a van in the alley... this could never happen in America.

In America, we make a plan for the day, grab the credit card and dart around town on a mission to tackle a multitude of objectives:

  • Go shopping for groceries
  • Make a deposit at the bank and get something notarized
  • Stop by the Post Office to mail a package
  • Take money from the ATM at another bank
  • Pick up a prescription at the pharmacy
  • Visit the mall to pay the credit card bill
  • Drop off the kids at soccer practice
  • Haul the recyclables over to the transfer station
  • Get a key copied at the hardware store
  • Go pay licensing fee at the DMV (department of motor vehicles)
  • Drop by the tax preparer with the receipts from last year
  • Swing by the carwash (ie, take the car to the carwash)
  • Visit Goodwill to donate old clothes
  • Meet up with a friend for lunch (see below)
  • Get gas for the lawnmower
  • Pick up the popcorn popper from the appliance repair center
  • Swing by the self-storage facility to grab the bicycles
  • Pick up the dry cleaning
  • Stop by the farmers market for some fresh strawberries
  • Head down to the docks to see if the battery charger is on the boat
  • Drop by the library to return the books
  • Visit the insurance office to see about adding a motorcycle policy
  • Hit up the liquor store for some rare Scotch
  • Drop in on Grandma at the retirement home just to say hi
  • Head over to the paint store to pick up swatches for the basement rehab
  • Take the car in for an oil change
  • Run to the laundromat to get the bedspread washed
  • Take back the carpet cleaner to the rental place
  • Grab Chinese takeout for dinner

A busy day indeed, and I'm sure I forgot something!

What I wouldn't typically include on the list, however, are trips where there is no "getting" or "putting" happening. Taking the family to a restaurant, for instance, or going to see the doctor, or visiting a salon are generally not errands. One exception might be when meeting people without a set appointment, for example meeting someone for lunch because you plan to be in the area.

  • 10
    Running errands is perfectly normal in Europe too, and has since long before cars were invented. You don’t need to get in a car and drive all over town to be running errands; going to the cornershop to get milk will do. The thing that is a little bizarre to many Europeans and is quite American is specifically what you describe: the mile-long list of things to do all in one go by zooming around all day. That is uncommon here, but I also don’t think most Europeans would think of that as ‘running errands’ – more like ‘running a marathon’. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 10:44
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet is right. The answer mixes running errands and Trip Chaining (Utah.gov link) which related to the grouping of errands. I tend to chain my errands into one trip, especially if I have to drive instead of cycle/walk. Of course the list is exaggerated because plenty of items are annual or thereabouts (and I'm not sure about classing Grandma as an errand)
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 12:32
  • 7
    "this could never happen in America" You've obviously never been to mid-town Manhattan. Most every task you listed could be done on foot and likely within 5-10 blocks of my grandparent's apartment. One nearly had to take a bus to get to where they parked their car, so getting into the car to do all those things would have been foolhardy. I believe this to be the case for most/all the 5 boroughs of NYC, but I spent 99.9% of my time in Manhattan, so I'm not certain. Of course, if you lived in Manhattan and had a boat at the dock, someone else would be taking care of it for you. ;)
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 14:36
  • @FreeMan And in opposition to Manhattan, where I live in (European) rural Germany, the nearest shop is about a 25 minutes walk away (and plenty of people live a lot further than that). Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 16:40
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica where I live in the somewhat rural Midwestern US, I can get to a store in a 7 minute car ride, but realistically, it's about a 25 minute drive to get anywhere of significance. (BTW- not all of us Americans are so clueless as to not know that Germany is in Europe. :D )
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 17:20

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