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What's the difference between "grin at" and "grin to"?

oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com ("Extra Examples"):
(1) She grinned to herself at the thought.
my variant:
(2) She grinned at herself at the thought.
What's the difference between (1) and (2)?

oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com:
(3) She grinned amiably at us.
my variant:
(4) She grinned amiably to us.
What's the difference between (3) and (4)?

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2 Answers 2

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According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to can mean

in the direction of
used for showing who receives something or who experiences an action

and at can mean

in the direction of

The direction of a grin is outward- in the direction that you are looking- so you could use both words with the sense "in the direction of" when you are grinning at/to some other person.

When the recipient of the grin is yourself, you can use a mirror to grin at yourself, but if you don't have a mirror, only the "who receives or experiences an action" applies, and only to has that meaning.

That said, Google NGrams does find a small number of grinned at herself that don't involve a mirror, for example:

It worked: Effie grinned at herself in satisfaction. - In-the-bye stories, William Flewelling, 2018

To answer your specific questions, in my opinion 1 is preferable to 2, whereas 3 and 4 are identical in meaning.

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  • I don't think 4) is really acceptable in English.
    – Lambie
    Jan 3 at 17:37
  • @Lambie I think "not really acceptable" is going a bit far: it's hardly going to raise eyebrows.. In my opinion it's grammatically correct but not idiomatic... and very uncommon.
    – JavaLatte
    Jan 4 at 4:45
  • Well, grammatically correct but not idiomatic is not really correct and would be edited. We just don't say to grin to someone.
    – Lambie
    Jan 4 at 15:55
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Generally, the word I would use with directing facial expressions to somebody is at:

She grinned/smiled/frowned/pouted at me.

To is also possible, but to me it seems much less likely. I would interpret it as meaning that there was more intention there: not just that I was the person she grinned etc at, but that she was trying to convey something to me by doing so.

(Note that this does not apply to other gestures: we say she nodded/waved/beckoned to me, rather than at me).

However, these expressions have another possible argument, the event or stimulus, and for that we normally use at:

She grinned/smiled/frowned/pouted at the interruption.

If we are using that "at" (as in your 1. and 2.) then I think to is more likely for the person the expression is directed at:

She grinned/smiled/frowned/pouted to me at the thought.

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