31

In a song (The Troubles by U2), there is this:

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

I was curious about this line:

Little by little they robbed and stole

It made me wonder whether there was any (subtle?) difference between robbing and stealing?

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    I have once been told the distinction is that if you are using violence or threatening to do so in order to take something, then you are robbing. But if you take something without any violence or threats, then you are stealing. – kasperd Sep 21 '14 at 15:06
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    When you rob a bank, you steal it's money. – user6951 Sep 21 '14 at 16:38
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    @kasperd I think you're wrong. When someone comes home to find their valuables missing and their house ransacked, I think they'd be right when they say, "I've been robbed!" (ref en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rob#Verb 4. (intransitive, slang) To burgle.) – Tim S. Sep 22 '14 at 14:04
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    @Tim - In that case, the violence has been done to the house. (Just a thought; I think the lines are blurred.) – J.R. Sep 23 '14 at 8:51
  • Based upon the accepted answer, they are two different things: Robbed is what one does to an entity. Stole is what one appropriates from the entity. – SrJoven Sep 24 '14 at 13:59

11 Answers 11

48

Regarding the primary meaning, there's probably no semantic difference worth noting, so OP's example is effectively tautological repetition for stylistic purposes. In terms of actual usage, note that "to rob" is becoming increasingly less common - so if you're unsure which to use, go for "to steal" by default. The main syntactic difference is probably best illustrated by...

1: I robbed my brother's wife
2: I stole my brother's wife

...where the meaning of #1 is I [illegally, secretly] took something from my brother's wife, whereas #2 means I [illegally, secretly] took my brothers wife - probably, from my brother. That's to say, the "direct object" of to rob is usually the owner of whatever you took illicitly, whereas the direct object of to steal is always the thing illicitly taken.


The above distinction has clear implications for passive constructions...

3: I was robbed
4: I was stolen

...where #3 means someone illegally took something from me (or colloquially and slightly more figuratively, circumstances prevented me from getting what I should have been entitled to). And the somewhat unlikely #4 would mean I personally was illicitly acquired (I was treated like "property").


EDIT: There's a good point in @kasperd's comment above - rob more strongly evokes the existence of a victim. Often, the victim of a robbery is forcibly divested of possessions - usually they're at least aware they've been robbed. But stealing is often far less noticeable to the victim. Thus, given...

5: Tom robbed the bank yesterday
6: Dick stole from the bank yesterday

...we're naturally inclined to imagine Tom held the bank up at gunpoint, and is now either in prison or on the run. But we probably assume Dick committed some kind of "white-collar crime" (maybe a computer-based book-keeping fraud) that might not yet (or ever) be noticed by the bank.

TL;DR: If someone robs you, you usually know it, but if they steal from you, you might not.

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    Large parts of this answer are incorrect. Robbery is theft backed up with threats of violence: walking into a bank with a gun and demanding they give you all the money is robbery; walking into a bank picking somebody's pocket is theft. So, "robbed and stole" is not redundant. It means "We stole, sometimes with the threat of violence and sometimes without." – David Richerby Sep 22 '14 at 8:17
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    @David: That's really more of a medieval common law definition for the specific offence of robbery. Although "often by force or threats" is mentioned in two of OED's eight main entries, it's not part of the others (including the first, which can reasonably be taken as the "primary" definition). Whatever - I've pointed out that victim is more strongly associated with rob than with steal, which I think adequately covers the practical aspects of common usage today. We're not teaching antiquated legal definitions here. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 22 '14 at 12:12
  • Then what are the contemporary legal definitions of the terms? I bet they are based on traditional definitions... – user6951 Sep 22 '14 at 17:24
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    @CarSmack: The meanings of English words are determined by common usage among native speakers, not legal texts. So far as I'm aware, there's no such thing as a "legal definition" for the word rob in the UK justice system - but even if there were, that would be irrelevant to common usage. When the losing football team say "We wuz robbed!", that in no way implies "We lost because the other side intimidated us" - in fact, it almost always implies something along the lines of "We were the better team and therefore should have won, but blind chance or bad refereeing cost us victory". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 22 '14 at 18:15
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    Please feel free to stop lecturing. I happen to believe that the technical meanings of the two words may help my own common usage of these words, and I believe the same for the original poster. – user6951 Sep 22 '14 at 18:26
16

According to the legal dictionary at lectlaw.com, the technical, legal definition of "steal" is that it is the general term for any unlawful taking of another person's property, while "rob" specifically means taking by violence or threat of violence. So I believe @kasperd is correct when speaking in technical, legal terms.

By the way, another law dictionary I checked explained that "burglary" is stealing by making unlawful entry, i.e. you break into someone's home or business to take their property; "embezzlement" is stealing from one's employer; etc. There are many kinds of stealing.

In common use among non-lawyers, I think "rob" and "steal" are used as synonyms, except for the syntactical distinction of the objects that others have noted.

Side note: There are many words that have technical definitions used within a profession, and common definitions used in ordinary speech. It is not wrong to use the common definition when speaking outside the technical circle. Every now and then I'll be in a conversation where someone uses such a non-technical definition and then someone else says, "no, no, you weren't robbed; maybe you were the victim of a larceny, but it wasn't a robbery as no violence was involved." Not only are such people tedious and annoying, but they are wrong. Lots of words have more than one definition, and to say that someone who uses a word in the sense of definition 2 from the dictionary is using the word incorrectly because the REAL definition is definition 1 is just silly. A software developer's definition of "protocol" and a diplomat's definition of "protocol" are very different, but neither is "right" or "wrong" of themselves.

  • +1 for the legal definition. U2 most likely used the words because they sounded good, but they are certainly different in the eyes of the law. – Brian S Sep 22 '14 at 18:39
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    @brians Oh, sure, maybe I should have elaborated on that point. I'd guess in the song it was meant to be repetition for emphasis. Like we'll say, "He was a mean and nasty person." Are we really drawing a distinction between being "mean" and being "nasty"? Probably not. Or, "The day was peaceful and serene." Etc. Often we use synonyms because it's more colorful than just saying "very". I don't the song writer was thinking of technical legal definitions and wanted to be sure to include a variety of crimes. – Jay Sep 22 '14 at 18:45
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    What if you're a software developer developing an interface between different spy organizations? You might need a protocol protocol. ;) – neminem Sep 22 '14 at 23:41
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    +1 for the side note, which seems to be the case in the U2 song. I don't think Bono ever meant to spur this debate. – J.R. Sep 23 '14 at 8:56
  • There are surprisingly few songs about software protocols, too. – Jay Sep 23 '14 at 13:15
6

They are used in slightly different contexts. In describing the object we would say:
"The car was stolen." rather than "The car was robbed."

Also we could say:
"The car was stolen from me."

In describing the victim or business or location we would say:
"The cashier was robbed." rather than "The cashier was stolen."

Similarly: "The house was robbed or the bank was robbed."

  • Oh, I understand ! Thank you ! But in the context of this specific sentence, is there any difference ? – Trevör Sep 21 '14 at 13:11
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    @TrevörAnneDenise None in this context. – Gary's Student Sep 21 '14 at 13:12
  • Yes, in the song's lyrics, the normal distinction in meaning applies. – user6951 Sep 21 '14 at 16:43
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    @CarSmack: That doesn't make sense. In the context of those lyrics I don't think it's even possible for any such distinction to apply. If they'd needed a couple more syllables for the sake of scansion, they could have included thieved, and there would still be no extra "meaning" conveyed by using all three words. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 21 '14 at 19:32
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    I would interpret "The car was robbed" to mean that the contents of the car were stolen. – 200_success Sep 22 '14 at 2:59
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The intransitive verb "to rob" generally means essentially "to commit robbery". What makes robbery a serious crime is not the value of the item stolen, but the use or threat of violence against the victim. If a mugger attacks someone who has nothing of value, the mugger would not have "stolen" anything, but would nonetheless have "robbed" the person.

I'm not familiar with the song in question; it's entirely possible the wording was chosen to fit the music. Were I to encounter the indicated text in prose, however, I would interpret the use of "robbed and stole" to suggest that they repeatedly took things of moderate value--not always using force, but not deterred by the need for it. Just saying "robbed" would ignore the fact that some items were likely taken by stealth or surprise, while just saying "stole" would ignore the use of violence in acquiring other items.

It should be noted that when used as a transitive verb with an object that is not a person and would not by implication generally contain one, the term "rob" may be used to indicate the use of forcible actions against the object to gain illegitimate access to the contents thereof, whether or not anything was actually stolen. Generally, to rob an inanimate object is to commit burglary against it, though legal definitions of burglary can vary significantly.

Additionally, the term "rob" may be used somewhat informally as a transitive verb with a human subject in cases where the human subject was traumatized by the theft, even if the thief was long gone by the time the theft was noticed. Such usage would be especially common in cases where the details of what was taken is less important than the insecurity implied by the taking. If someone who had been carrying an expensive-looking but broken and worthless item set it down and turned his back on it for a moment while tying his shoes, and someone else took the item, the former person might, at least informally, say he was robbed. Even though in fact nothing of value was stolen, the action of the thief would still cause distress for the person from whom the item was taken since it would imply that the area was not safe.

  • +1 "Bob robbed the shop" implies some loud threatening scene like Bob bursting in with a mask and gun. "Bob stole from the shop" implies something more like quietly pocketing items when no-one was looking. "They robbed and stole" implies they used any method to take things that weren't theirs: they took things blatantly by force, and they took things subtly through trickery. – user56reinstatemonica8 Sep 22 '14 at 14:25
  • @user568458: I should have mentioned that for purposes of English-language usage outside criminal codes, the term "to rob" may be used with a clearly-inanimate object to indicate that something was forcibly removed from it, generally to the detriment of the object in question--to rob a thing generally is to commit burglary against it, though legal definitions of "burglary" vary. To rob a "house" would be to break into it, while robbing a "home" would be to accost the occupants. – supercat Sep 22 '14 at 16:03
6

Stealing is, in general, taking something that's not yours, whereas robbery is taking something from somebody. If I take your wallet from you, at gunpoint, that's robbery. If I take your bicycle from your garage when you're not there, it's not robbery. They're both stealing.

4

The German language distinguishes between "Raub" (robbery) and "Diebstahl" (stealing). While the latter describes the act of taking away the belongings of someone else the former describes an act of taking something by someone with the application (or threat) of violence. To my understanding it's pretty much the same in English (please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbery).

Hence if you sneaked up and took the wallet from someones bag it would be stealing, but if you threatened the person with a knife to get hold of the wallet it would be robbery.

  • Even if this answer may be correct, a citation of a definition rather than "I think it's the same in English" would be appropriate. – 200_success Sep 22 '14 at 8:03
  • Thanks for your remarks. Even if it's not the gold standard for linguistics the Wikipedia definition I added will do for the moment. – Paul K Sep 22 '14 at 8:08
2

FumbleFingers is mostly right on this, but there's a bit of missing information.

A robbery is a type of theft that happens in plain sight of the victim and/or onlookers. The "thief" is fully aware and prepared to be seen committing the act. Due to some quirks in the way we use the word, a robbery is not always an illegal act. For instance: when a company starts price gouging because they're the "only game in town", or when a business charges premium prices for a sub-par product, they are said to be "robbing their customers blind." In almost any common/modern use of the word "robbing" it usually means "taking more than you are reasonably due", irrespective of the means. This is why "robbery" is falling out of use when referring to illegal acts of theft.

In contrast, stealing almost always refers to an act of theft performed without the immediate knowledge of the victim. This is the primary reason why stealing is more focused on the item(s) stolen than robbery. Where with robbery, the victim is fully aware of being victimized as the event is happening and forms a personal connection to the act, a victim of stealing will not even notice until the stolen item has been discovered as missing. In that situation, the focus goes more toward the item stolen than toward the victim. This also explains why robbery (at least the illegal kind) often implies the use or threat of violence.

To make it easy, just think of robbing and stealing like mugging and pick-pocketing, respectively. I don't think you'll ever hear someone yell out that they've been "robbed" by a pick-pocket or "stolen from" by a mugger. Robbery requires an interaction between the "thief" and the victim where the victim begrudgingly or forcibly cooperates with the "thief". Stealing only requires a reasonably skilled, surreptitious action by the thief.

  • This is a great answer, but you can make it even better by providing some authoritative resources for what you say. That might help future questioners answer questions for themselves, too. (I'm also curious if you have a basis for the claim that 'robbery' is falling out of use--if this is just a personal observation, that's fine, but do say so.) – Tiercelet Sep 22 '14 at 16:08
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    I reject this. A bank, or a private house, can be robbed at night, when it is closed, and there are no victims anywhere near the place. – user6951 Sep 22 '14 at 17:34
  • @Tiercelet: Arkain refers to my answer, which includes an NGram link showing that whereas prevalence for steal has remained reasonably constant over the past couple of centuries, prevalence for rob has dropped considerably. This is even more evident if we look at just the two words they robbed from OP's text. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 23 '14 at 12:12
  • @FumbleFingers Ah--I was responding through the first-post review, not in the full context of the question. That said, some dictionary links would probably still be nice. – Tiercelet Sep 23 '14 at 19:07
  • @Tiercelet: Well, I see the question text has now been edited to show more of the context - making it blindingly obvious that there's no real scope for the two words to have different meanings in OP's specific context (we're surely not going to suppose that the metaphorical "thief in your head" sometimes steals openly with threats, but other times steals surreptitiously). Both words have a range of meanings, but scouring dictionaries for potentially significant differences wouldn't really help anyone understand the meaning in context as per OP's cited lyrics. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 23 '14 at 19:33
1

You tend to steal specific things during a robbery. You steal a car. You steal The Constitution. You steal the lady's heart. Stealing is an act performed on the things you steal. Robbery is an act you perform on the victim. So you rob a stereo and steal the CD inside. You rob a car and steal its stereo. You rob a garage and steal a car.

A robbery tends to involve taking a lot of small things. You rob a store or a bank for the cash behind the counter. You rob a pedestrian of their cell phone (although this specific robbery is known as a mugging).

This is compared to a heist, which is a more elaborate robbery. A bank heist would involve technology, distractions for the guards, perhaps some explosives, etc. You'll get more for a heist, but there's a lot more moving parts so it's harder to pull off than a robbery. A heist also usually has a specific target. Sure if you can pick up a few other jewels while you're in the vault, why not, but you're here for the Blue Macguffin Diamond.

Now, when it comes to stealing versus robbery specifically, stealing is associated with the word thievery which implies a certain amount of subterfuge. Slipping things quietly into your bag, pickpocketing, taking things exposed and unprotected would be described as stealing, while robberies tend to be more brazen. A robbery might use a ski mask to protect the identity, but the more elaborate forms of stealing tend to use fake ids, established alibis, etc.

I saw all three Oceans' movies, so I'm pretty much an expert on this. That's how it works, right? RIGHT?

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    Your definition in the first paragraph (you steal things and rob victims) is correct but the following examples make no sense. I could rob you and steal your stereo and the CD in it but "robbing a stereo"? How is the stereo the victim of my crime? And robbery has nothing to do with stealing many small things versus one big thing. – David Richerby Sep 22 '14 at 8:13
  • A stereo is a container (of CDs) and can be robbed (of its contents). So just like how a car can be robbed of its stereo, a stereo can be robbed of its CDs. And the dictionary definition of a robbery has nothing to do with the small-large distinction, but common usage does. No one would say "he robbed the Louvre of the Mona Lisa" as that would seriously understate the complexity of such an operation. – corsiKa Sep 22 '14 at 17:13
  • I agree that a container can be robbed of its contents (e.g., grave-robbing). However, declaring a stereo to be a container whose contents are a single CD is rather stretching things. – David Richerby Sep 22 '14 at 17:28
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    If you can rob a safe of its passports you can rob a stereo of its CDs... – corsiKa Sep 22 '14 at 18:32
  • It would be silly if it were just an ordinary music cd. It wouldn't be silly if it were a dvd containing nuclear launch codes, say, from the dvd player of a computer in a secret base 10 miles under the ocean. Ok, I take it back, it would still be silly, you'd probably say you robbed the base, the dvd player being incidental to the robbery. But you could say that. :p – neminem Sep 22 '14 at 23:43
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In the usage that I've encountered, "to steal" refers to the things taken specifically. "To rob" refers to the person or place from which the things were taken.

For example, if someone said, "That man robbed my food cart," people would assume that the man took various things from the cart - money, food - but left the cart in place. They may have been taken by intimidation or just casually grabbed. On the other hand, if someone said, "That man stole my food cart" then the food cart is entirely gone.

Or a conversation might go like this -

"I'm upset. My house got robbed last night."

"Did you lose much?"

"Not really, they only stole a microwave oven and a boombox."

In the case of the conversation, the house is still there just some of its contents were removed.

0

it's really hard to say... maybe a couple other lines from the song will help you decide. it's my understanding, that when you rob someone, it is done with their full knowledge that it is happening. stealing from someone is done in secret. You break into someone's house while they are on vacation and "steal" everything valuable. when they get home and notice what happened, they run back outside screaming that they were "robbed" but it's too late by then. the knowledge that it is happening, would be my "definition of the difference."

0

Whenever I find myself wondering about some lyric's deep meaning, I go back to McCartney:

“Somebody said to me, ''But the Beatles were anti-materialistic.'' That's a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, ''Now, let's write a swimming pool.''”

Bono has a swimming pool, and a tennis court.

When it comes down to it, The Troubles is many peaceful evenings' worth of rich, filling meals and French wine away from Sunday Bloody Sunday. Maybe U2 forgot what The Troubles really were.

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