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What is the difference between these sentences below in terms of meaning?

  1. He lives by himself.

  2. He lives on his own

If you ask me, the first sentence connotes that he doesn't have a housemate/wife, like being alone at home .The second sentence connotes that he doesn't have girlfriend/boyfriend or friends/family who support him when he needs, like feeling lonely.

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    Maybe someone here will disagree, but I'm a native speaker and I can't make out any difference between the two sentences. They both mean that the man lives at home without a wife or any housemates. Neither sentence really indicate how much support he has or doesn't have from friends and family who don't live with him.
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 15:14
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    they can be somewhat interchanged. "living by himself" tends towards meaning without anyone in the same house. "living on his own" tends towards meaning without requiring support.
    – eques
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 16:41
  • @eques You should write an answer around your comment. I think you are right.
    – user3169
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 17:37
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    This could also be somewhat cultural. In major English speaking countries (US, UK), living 'on your own' is a good thing. It doesn't mean you're 'alone'; rather, it means you're capable of supporting yourself. Sort of a Protestant Work Ethic concept [not meaning the religious elements, but the resultant cultural elements that persist in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK]. In many other countries this isn't as big of a goal, and the existence of support is more important.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 19:46
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    I tend to avoid interpreting song lyrics (as I think is the norm on this site, the one time I tried it was discouraged). I would say that I don't intend to say that 'living on my own' is 100% good - but that it's often used in a positive sense in the US/UK, and I wouldn't assume a negative connotation unless I had reason to. As michelle notes in her answer, context is certainly very important. I was just noting that there may be cultural differences where the default out of context may be different.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 20:12

2 Answers 2

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They can be somewhat interchanged; that is, they have similar meanings that in some contexts are equivalent, but in others they have a different connotation.

"living by himself" tends towards meaning without anyone in the same house.

He finished college where he shared a small apartment with three guys and found a loft apartment just a few blocks from his job. With his parent's support, He's living by himself and prefers it that way.

"living on his own" tends towards meaning without requiring support.

After living with his parents most of his life with his mother doing his laundry and cooking his meals, he finally moved out and started living on his own. He does his own laundry and cooks his own food, but he shares an apartment with a co-worker.

These examples show where one phrase works but the other doesn't.

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    +1 for pointing out that "living on your own" doesn't always mean "living alone".
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 17:47
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    The "by himself" example could be changed such that he was clearly not "living on his own" [e.g. if the parents were paying for college in addition to his private room and board].
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 19:58
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I think the connotation you are looking for really depends on the context of these sentences. Neither one has a strong enough connotation on its own to make the assumption you are about what it implies.

For example, compare:

He lives by himself now. He can do what he wants when he pleases. There is no one to tell him when to eat, when to sleep. For the first time in his life, he has privacy and he loves it.

with

His wife left in January. He lives by himself now. For the first few months, he secretly cried every night. Even now, sometimes he comes home to the cold, dark house and wonders where it all went wrong.

The sentence works in either context. Likewise, living on his own could very well be positive:

Shortly after he started walking as a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism. His parents were sure he'd never be able to live independently, but after years of successful therapy, he lives on his own. They are so proud of him.

The context is really going to affect how you interpret either of these sentences.

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