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What word can we use if someone checks, searches or looks through somebody else's possessions without the owner's consent or knowledge? People who do this may not be looking for a specific thing, just something interesting or valuable.

For example:

When I turned around, I saw somebody was ........... my bag. (Past continuous)

Toddlers like to .............. my wardrobe and bookcase.

  • Perusing (probably way too casual for what you're talking about), sifting through, digging through, going through. – shawnt00 Mar 3 '15 at 19:43
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An excellent verb is "rummage". It is typically used with the prepositions "through" and "around" accordingly, or simply with "in". It should be noted that only the context suggests that "rummage" is without the owner's permission. It does not directly mean that. Another viable suggestion is "rifle". It is used with the same prepositions as above. This verb is more adept to stealing/looking without the owner's permission. Here are some examples to suit your ideas:

When I turned around, I saw somebody was rummaging through my bag.

My toddler nephews like to rummage around wardrobes and bookcases.

I came home to find a masked man rifling through my stuff.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the security guard rummaging through the piles of suitcases.

EDIT Another option is "ransack" though this carries an air of "pillage" which has an air of violence about it. This is perhaps not the preferred option if you wish to express purely "without the owner's consent/permission".

We had a call from the police to say the summer house had been ransacked.

  • 3
    As we're on a learner's site, it might be worth noting that relatively speaking, rummage, rifle, ransack are all 50-cent words. A common "5-cent" expression is somebody was poking [though/around in] my bag. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 3 '15 at 17:01
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    "Snoop" is another good word for this. It implies a more general investigation, but someone can "snoop around" in your closet, as if they're looking for something specific. – Jason Patterson Mar 3 '15 at 18:07
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    +1 for “rifle”, which is the word that popped into my mind immediately while reading this question. – Tyler James Young Mar 3 '15 at 23:13
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    @FumbleFingers - rummage hardly seems like a 50-cent word to me. I wonder if that's an AmE/BrE difference. Cool Ngram, too. – J.R. Mar 4 '15 at 10:20
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    @J.R. I would have thought that another AmE/BrE difference would be the metaphor for "50-cent words" (or "20-dollar words" as I've also heard them called)! /@FumbleFingers Your point is well taken, though, about appropriate vocabulary for learners. It just happens that in AmE, "rummage" and "ransack" are plain words even though they're not common; "rifle" (in this sense) is a little fancier. Good luck to anyone trying to distinguish these degrees of fanciness without years of experience among the natives, though! – Ben Kovitz Mar 5 '15 at 13:17
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The word snoop works well in this case.

When I turn around, I saw somebody snooping in my bag. (Past continuous)

Toddlers like to snoop through wardrobes and bookcases.

The word snoop implies without permission, so I would favor it versus other choices that rely on context.

  • Welcome to ell. Nice answer. Just so you know, for some reason, this SE site greatly prefers formatting with the ">," as in the original question, rather than the mono-spaced embedded scrollable panel. – Adam Mar 3 '15 at 21:00
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    This does a better job of expressing the "without permission" part. I think 'snoop' implies just looking without taking anything, so that might be relevant. – DCShannon Mar 3 '15 at 21:00
  • This was the answer that came immediately to my head. – user17873 Mar 4 '15 at 9:13
  • Yes, this is better fitting to the context. +1 – Maulik V Mar 4 '15 at 11:46
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I shall be leaning toward another word and not 'rummage' because it does not happen unbeknownst to the owner.

A better verb that comes to my mind is the verb 'sneak'.

sneak -to do something or take somebody/something somewhere secretly, often without permission

If you sneak through something, you are searching through something especially without permission.


Note: J.R.'s comment is very useful. Kindly consider it.

  • 4
    Sneak works, but only if we use a suitable preposition. If a man is sneaking by my bag, he is walking past it steathily; if a man is sneaking with my bag, he might be trying to steal it. If he is sneaking through my bag, though, then that's what the OP is asking about. – J.R. Mar 4 '15 at 10:25

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