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If you want to say to a close friend, who has sweated too much and is stinking because of that, which do you use?

  1. You smell like sweat.

  2. You smell of sweat.

  3. You smell sweat.

  4. You smell sweaty.

I checked Ngram but "You smell like sweat" is shown highest. sweat

I can't be sure if "You smell like sweat" is correct. This sentence sounds like the person is not sure about the kind of the smell, because of the word "like". This means the odor resembles sweat or reminds them of sweat whereas it is actually sweat itself.

Is this really how native speakers of English say it?

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    #4 is idiomatic, not so much the others. Note that since fresh sweat has little or no odour, anyone saying this would almost certainly mean You smell like stale sweat - which is far more strongly implied by #4 than by #1 or #2. Also note that #3 is simply "invalid" unless you're pointing out that the other person can smell (detect by nose) the odour of sweat (from an unspecified source). Sep 3, 2023 at 11:13
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    Also note that your chart makes useless comparisons. NGrams are case-sensitive, but your search strings are a random mix of capitalisations. Sep 3, 2023 at 11:16
  • @FumbleFingers, Thanks. I did not know it was case sensitive. So, I checked it -correctly- once again and "You smell like sweat" -number 1- is shown the highest, but as far as I understand you comment, you say number 4 is idiomatic, but ngram yielded number 1 as the highest. Did I miss something?
    – Yunus
    Sep 3, 2023 at 11:27
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    Tempted to downvote because of the smell. Sep 3, 2023 at 11:42
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    Be aware that good English or not, all your choices are insulting to anyone who's not your own sibling. Not similar to an insult, exactly like an insult. Maybe try "Did you get a shower after your workout?" "You might be a tad ripe." Sep 3, 2023 at 17:02

1 Answer 1

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Except for 3 (which is the transitive verb "smell" and means "detect an odour", instead of "give off an odour") these are all possible.

"You smell like sweat" is fine. The most common reason for a person to smell like sweat is that they are covered in sweat. You can say "like" sweat, since you don't imply that the person is made of sweat.

But the others are also good ways to express the same general idea. I don't see much difference between them. My ngram search suggests "smell of sweat" is the most common. Possibly "smell sweaty" would be more common in spoken English.

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  • The Ngram chart has the 3rd person singular "smells" which could refer to a person, thing or animal. E.g it smells sweaty here.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 3, 2023 at 12:14
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    I find 'You smell like sweat" unidiomatic. The speaker knows what it is that the person smells of, they are not saying "You have a smell (that I can't identify) resembling that of sweat." Sep 3, 2023 at 12:57
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    Yes, I chose the 3rd person to avoid getting hits for "the smell of sweat" that would skew the results. I have no problem at all with smells like sweat, when the smell really is from sweat. Google books finds "He smells like sweat and motor oil...", "my mattress smells like sweat; from all those days and nights" "She smells like sweat and cigarettes. It reminds me of home." and so on.
    – James K
    Sep 3, 2023 at 14:00
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    In AmE, "smell of sweat" is a tad formal whereas "smell sweaty" and "smell like sweat" are colloquial. Someone who hasn't gone beyond secondary school isn't likely to say "smell of sweat". Sep 3, 2023 at 16:05
  • @KateBunting: It sounds to me like you're disagreeing with this answer then. Which is weird, because you did not produce any sound that I observed in order to understand that you didn't quite agree. Huh. I guess language is able to convey its intended meaning without necessarily needing to be pedantically correct. Additionally, it would still be polite to not outright state that it is indeed sweat, given that there may be other things that smell similarly and you don't want to be making unconfirmed accusations.
    – Flater
    Sep 4, 2023 at 1:13

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