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I saw someone insisting "loot can be robbed" and he said there are lots of instances as below.

She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once had her purse robbed there. (Washington Post; 1979)

But I learned the difference between "steal" and "rob" like this.

steal: steal (from victim) ex. steal his wife = have his wife herself
rob: rob (of loot) ex. rob his wife = have the belongings of his wife

So I think loot can be "stolen" or "robbed of", but not "robbed"

What about the sentence from Washington Post above?

Someone might have his purse robbed if the purse is just smashed and only the money inside is stolen, but I'm not sure as a non-native speaker.

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  • The quote you give with the semicolons ":" is worthless without a source, and worthless with a source.
    – Fattie
    Dec 18, 2023 at 0:01
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    "Someone might have his purse robbed if the purse is just smashed and only the money inside is stolen" Aside from the 'smashed' part. This is basically the correct understanding. A purse here would likely be an unlocked bag.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 18:06
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    @JimmyJames The purse is just smashed?? Purses are not smashed. The Washington Post article could as easily have said: once had her purse stolen there. with exactly the same meaning.
    – Lambie
    Dec 18, 2023 at 18:59
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    @Lambie What does 'aside from' mean to you?
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 19:06
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    @Lambie Are you feeling OK? I didn't say it was strange to say "Her purse was stolen at the library" I said it's strange to say it was 'robbed' if it was 'stolen'. 'Robbed' and 'stolen' are not the same thing. A robbed purse will still be there after it is, ... robbed. It's like if a grave, or a bank, or a house or a vehicle, is robbed. It's not removed. If the purse was actually stolen, then they would have most likely written that.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 19:46

6 Answers 6

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I'm an attorney here in the USA. Former criminal defense. And a TEFL English teacher.

Theft = taking something that doesn't belong to you.
Robbery = taking something off of someone's person, with or without violence or violent threats.
Burglary = breaking into someone's home or office with the intent to commit a crime, usually theft

All of the above are forms of 'stealing' (if the burglar ends up stealing while there)

EXAMPLES: If you steal someone's car and the person isn't there, it's theft. If you steal someone's car, and the person is standing 10 feet away, that's theft. If you steal someone's car and that person is in the driver's seat, and you force that person out, or tell that person to get out, that's robbery, e.g. car jacking.

If you see someone's wallet fall out of his pants, and you grab it, and run, that's theft. If you take it out of the person's pocket or bag, that is theft. If you tell someone to give you his wallet from his pocket or bag, that is robbery.

In other words, both robbery and theft are forms of 'stealing'.

You cannot 'rob' a thing. You can only rob a person.
You cannot 'steal' a person. You can only steal a thing. (Note: stealing a person is known as... kidnapping.

So the example above you share from the Washington Post is poor grammar.

This is wrong:

She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once had her purse robbed there. (Washington Post; 1979)

This is correct:

She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once had her purse stolen via robbery there.

Or:

She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once was robbed there.

Or:

She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once had her purse stolen there.

Also note: You usually don't say, "I'll work in the library" unless you are in the same building, and the library is one of the areas within that building. If you are outside the library, and you're talking about your place of employment, which is the NY Public Library, you use 'at', i.e. "I'll work at the NY Public Library".

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    "Stolen via robbery"? That doesn't sound like anything a native speaker would say! The natural way to say it is "she was once robbed of her purse there".
    – TonyK
    Dec 17, 2023 at 16:48
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    These are technical (legal) definitions, which do not necessarily agree with common usage. When you are in court, or otherwise discussing matters of law, you have the right to say that your definitions are correct and the common usage is wrong. But this site is not about the law, it is about common usage.
    – Kevin
    Dec 17, 2023 at 18:04
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    Legal definitions aside, "You cannot 'rob' a thing. You can only rob a person." does not really hold true in general usage. You can "rob a bank" etc. And, regardless of legal defintions, breaking into the bank at night to make off with some money would be commonly referred to as "robbing the bank" not "burglarizing the bank" Dec 17, 2023 at 20:23
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    By your definition, "taking something off of someone's person, with or without violence or violent threats", picking someone's pocket counts as robbery. I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Robbery is defined by use of force, not stealth.
    – Divizna
    Dec 18, 2023 at 0:05
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    Someone who goes away on vacation and comes home to find their place cleaned out might say "I've been robbed" even though nothing was taken off their person. That wouldn't be a robbery in the legal sense, but people use the term robbery in a more expansive way. Dec 18, 2023 at 11:35
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Stealing is theft, dishonestly taking someone's property with the intent to permanently deprive them of it.

Robbery is theft, by violence or under the threat of violence.

So if I put my purse down, and someone sneakily takes it and runs away, that is theft. But if someone threatens me with a knife to make me give them my purse, that is robbery.

Burgulary is theft from a private building. The burglar breaks in and steals. The robber uses violence to steal. The thief steals.

However, these terms are sometimes misused in non-legal contexts. This seems to be an example of that. The author is using "robbed" as a synonym of "stolen".

But this usage is common enough. You can say "She had her purse robbed" to mean "She was robbed of her purse". Here is an example of both

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  • If so, money can be "robbed"? how about this sentence: He robbed the money. I feel this very odd...
    – Englishy
    Dec 17, 2023 at 7:42
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    You do see examples of that. Wiktionary marks this as British slang. But I see use of it in fairly formal contexts. Don't use "rob" to mean "steal" if you don't want to (but accept that other people might)
    – James K
    Dec 17, 2023 at 7:51
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    Since the Americans use purse for what I would call a handbag, it could conceivably mean that money was stolen out of her purse (without taking the bag itself). Dec 17, 2023 at 8:14
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    @JamesK - I mainly think of 'rob' for 'steal' as mainly North West England, particularly around Merseyside, also as a noun (informally, they may 'go on the rob'). Dec 17, 2023 at 15:11
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    In the US, 'her purse was robbed' strongly implies that the purse was not stolen but some of its contents were. It's similar to someone saying that their 'house was robbed' when it was technically burglarized.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 17:50
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A quick glance in Merriam-Webster online shows several different senses of "rob" beyond the technical legal definition of "taking something from a person".

Either 1.b.2 "to take the contents of (a receptacle)" or 1.c "to take away as loot : STEAL" could apply to "she once had her purse robbed there", depending on whether the purse itself or its contents were stolen.

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    To rob the cookie jar means to take the cookies. To steal the cookie jar means to take the jar (with the cookies inside). Dec 18, 2023 at 14:24
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    This is IMO the correct answer. If someone 'robs a safe', they took the contents and left the safe. If they 'stole a safe', they took the whole thing.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 17:53
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David Gelhar's answer is correct, but I think some elaboration and examples might help here. Your understanding of the meaning of the Washington Post sentence is correct and I think a lot of the answers here do more to confuse the situation by bringing in legal terminology. The sentence is not from a legal brief and legal definitions are not typically relevant to general usage.

Someone might have his purse robbed if the purse is just smashed and only the money inside is stolen.

This is correct (with the exception of 'smashed' and it could be something other than money taken.) When someone or something is 'robbed' it means something was taken from the subject. The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is with relation to a 'safe' (a type of box for holding valuables):

  • "The safe was robbed": items were stolen from the safe
  • "The safe was stolen": the entire safe itself was taken

Whether force was involved does not matter. Whether it's a person (legally or otherwise) does not matter. A person can be robbed or stolen. These are not synonyms; they have very different meanings.

I find it a little surprising that people actually think violence or the threat of violence is a requirement in the general meaning of 'robbed'. Perhaps this is a North American or US English thing but violence can be and often is part of robbing (e.g.: 'armed robbery') but is not required. As evidence of this, we can look at ngrams for 'safe was robbed'. Here's an example excerpt from "The Four-Pools Mystery" by Jean Webster:

“Good morning Arnold,” he said with a certain grim pleasantness. “I have just been making a discovery. It appears that Mose's ha'nt amounted to more than we gave him credit for. The safe was robbed during the night.”

“The safe robbed!” I cried. “How much was taken?”

No act of violence is implied, or assumed. I encourage anyone who is still dubious about this to try searching for things like "safe was robbed last night" on ngrams.

I actually found a reference to an example of 'purse robbed' in the book "Yesterday's Faces: Violent lives" by Robert Sampson.

In the first story, Mr. Laxworthy arranges to have a lady's apartment broken into and her purse robbed. Nothing valuable is taken -- only a pass to board the French battleship in the harbor.

Clearly the implication is that the purse was not stolen, just one item from it and this was a surreptitious act. Not one of violence.

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  • Violence does matter, though, at least in situations where the container is something you’d expect to have on you (rather than, say, a house or car). “She had her purse robbed” very strongly implies that the removal of (the contents of) the purse happened through use or threat of violence. If she left her purse on the table and the money was gone when she came back, it would sound very odd to say that she had her purse robbed – you’d either use a different verb (rifled, picked, etc.) or say she had her money stolen from her purse. Dec 18, 2023 at 20:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I'm not sure where you are getting that idea. The most common idiomatic thing for someone to say if they find their home was burglarized when they were away is "we've been robbed!". Is there a threat of violence when a grave is robbed? What about when someone's team loses a game and someone says "we were robbed". Conflating legal terms and general English terms is an error.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 20:46
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I have had things stolen from my car at night while I was sleeping. I absolutely referred to that as my car being robbed. If I said my car was stolen, it would be incorrect.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 18, 2023 at 20:48
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    Hence why I specified “where the container is something you’d expect to have on you”. A house, grave, car or safe is not something you carry on your person. I’m not talking about legal definitions, but about how the terms are used in normal, everyday conversation. If someone looks distressed, you ask them what’s happened, and they say, “I got robbed!”, that very, very strongly implies that they were mugged, not that someone picked their pockets or hacked their bank account. I also never said anything about stealing cars, which is an entirely different and unrelated thing. Dec 19, 2023 at 1:59
  • @JanusBahsJacquet " that very, very strongly implies that they were mugged." Uh, no it doesn't. It could mean many different things including being pickpocketed. Can I ask in what part of the world you learned English?
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:53
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Robbing someone is the physical act of aggression by means of force or intimidation through personal confrontation in an intended threatening manner, mostly to obtain valuables in their immediate possession, whereas stealing isn't an act of physical aggression towards a person directly or to obtain items in their possession but instead an act violating personal space in a to obtain items or property in their absence which doesn't require using force in any threatening or confrontational manner.

The real difference in the eyes of the law is whether the act itself actually puts a persons (or peoples) life in immediate danger and/or their safety in jeopardy in some unnecessary reckless manner. Or more simply put, it's the difference between getting 1 to 5 or 10 to 20 in prison.

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This seems to be codified law. The implementation depends on jurisdiction, but the essential difference is obvious from etymology:

  • to steal, stealth

  • to rob, rip off, bereft, reave, rave, (further uncertain)

See dictionary.com for attestation.

So a pick-pocket steals and gets caught, but Jack the Ripper murdered whores and was never caught – two sides of not the same coin.

Rape of the Sabines (Sabinae Raptae)—Latin rapio (“C. In partic. 1 To carry off by force; to seize, rob, ravish; to plunder, ravage, lay waste, take by assault, carry by force”, L&S)—indicates that rape is a secondary development: to rob of virginity. Modern English would normally speak of stealing a woman without brute force. Another example is German an-graben or an-baggern, which may mean "to groom, flirt", literally "to dig, excavate", but it is trivially obvious that the first compares to English grab, grope.

From the perspective of a thieving hoodlum there is no difference, if they can get away with it. Iff!

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