All dictionaries describe 'sway' as to 'move gently, regularly, from side to side' (I omit other meanings of the word). My, imperfect, impression is that it describes a movement anchored at the bottom: trees, wheat, ship masts, etc. This seems to be corroborated by the usages I find on the net. Thesaura are not very helpful here, as their range of synonyms is too wide both in general and in this case, and can very easily omit such nuance, as it must be really hard to native speakers to catch all such differences. However, Cambridge dictionary explicitly lists 'swing', 'pendulate', and 'undulate', which all seem to definitely point at motion anchored at the top.

Now, normally I would simply avoid such corner cases, but I have only 5 syllabes to work with, and I am already constrained by rhyming with idioms :\ Thus, I wonder to if it is 'suggestive of such motion', or 'I would never use it in that meaning and it sounds wrong, must be some archaic stuff'?

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    Curtains (anchored at the top) stereotypically sway in the breeze. It's just that swaying is usually far less regular than swinging [pendulums, etc.]. And breezes outdoors are thus a very typical cause of such movements. But we can't write your poem for you. Jan 8 at 22:41
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    This does not appear to be an English learning question. If you are writing poetry, I suggest you are an English user. If you are writing poetry, the "right" word might not be idiomatic.
    – James K
    Jan 8 at 22:41
  • How did you want to use sway in your poem? And if you say you are constrained by rhyming, maybe you are not as limited as you think. Breaking rules gently is part of being creative. Jan 8 at 23:00
  • @JamesK It is a question from a non-native about nuance in word meaning, which I'd assume is clear by native speakers. I do not see how it does not belong here. I ask at English Users when my question is not a direct result of such limitations to exposition.
    – Turin
    Jan 9 at 7:02
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    And flags sway and they're anchored at the side. But you shouldn't use a thesaurus to work out the meaning of a word - that's what a dictionary is for, not a thesaurus. A thesaurus tells you words with a similar meaning, not precisely the same meaning. Look in multiple dictionaries and check the usage examples. (Also there's no universe in which the plural of thesaurus is thesaura: it's usually thesauruses but if you want to sound ridiculous, thesauri is an alternative.)
    – Stuart F
    Jan 9 at 9:46

1 Answer 1


Differences between similar words can be analysed using the concept of semantic trait. The Wikipedia article cited below is a full page but only the first paragraph is given here.

A semantic feature is a component of the concept associated with a lexical item ('female' + 'performer' = 'actress'). More generally, it can also be a component of the concept associated with any grammatical unit, whether composed or not ('female' + 'performer' = 'the female performer' or 'the actress'). 1 An individual semantic feature constitutes one component of a word's intention, which is the inherent sense or concept evoked.[2] Linguistic meaning of a word is proposed to arise from contrasts and significant differences with other words. Semantic features enable linguistics to explain how words that share certain features may be members of the same semantic domain. Correspondingly, the contrast in meanings of words is explained by diverging semantic features. [...] A semantic property is specified in square brackets and a plus or minus sign indicates the existence or non-existence of that property.[12]

cat is
puma is

semantic feature

Merriam Webster: sway

: the action or an instance of swaying or of being swayed : an oscillating, fluctuating, or sweeping motion

Merriam Webster: swing

a : to cause to move vigorously through a wide arc or circle swing an ax b : to cause to sway to and fro

sway is [+ with an arc]
[+ attached to or on something at one end]
[+ motion but not vigorous]

swing is
[+ with a wide arc or circle]
[+ attached to something at one end]
[+ vigorous motion]


The drunk man stood in the doorway swaying backwards and forwards. [on the floor = on something]

The ball was hanging in the doorway swinging from a rope attached to a hook. [creating a wide arc through vigorous motion]

The flag was swaying in the breeze. [creating an arc, attached at one end]

The flag was swinging in the breeze. [the flag is hanging from the end of a rope,for example, creating a wide arc]

The semantic traits may not be 100% described but they are described enough to draw a distinction between sway and swing.

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