tell sb to do sth (Cambridge Learner's Dictionary)

When I look in dictionaries, I often see the words sb and sth. Are these proper words? What do they mean?

Can I use these words in my essays, for example?

Can I use these words in my posts on Stack Exchange?

  • Asking if they can be used on SE, particularly if you're asking about ELL should be done on the ELL meta page.
    – Catija
    Apr 5 '16 at 13:59
  • @Catija It's merely asking what types of environment this common English abbreviation can be used in. The fact that I've used ELL as an example environment, is just to make the question more immediate and pertinent to readers. That part could be asked on ELL meta too, I agree. Apr 5 '16 at 14:07
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    Abbreviations used in dictionaries are explained in the dictionary. Normally before the vocabulary part.
    – rogermue
    Apr 5 '16 at 16:39
  • @rogermue Yes, but some of the 'experts' answering questions here are unaware of these common abbreviations. And some of them are telling students off because they think they made them up because they are lazy. They are standard abbreviations within English language learning. Apr 5 '16 at 21:35
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 27 '19 at 14:12

sb is an abbreviation for somebody. sth is an abbreviation for something.

The sentence means tell somebody to do something. In real life, any person and any thing can be included in the sentence, for example, tell [your student] to [complete their homework]. A dictionary should explain this.

Can you use these words in your essays? No. They are not real English words.

Can you use these words in your posts on Stack Exchange? Maybe. Until you are very certain how to use them, use the words in full.

  • 6
    I suggest not using these abbreviations in posts. If you have time to write a post, you have time to write the words out. It's clearer and looks better. These aren't text messages. Apr 5 '16 at 13:56
  • 6
    Please don't encourage people to use them in posts. I actively replace them with the actual words because they are confusing to anyone not familiar with the terms. They are not clear, regardless of their use in the ESL/EFL community and they are not understood outside it so learners should not get used to using them in everyday speech.
    – Catija
    Apr 5 '16 at 13:57
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    I'm a native English speaker, and had no idea what "sb" an "sth" meant until I read this question. Do NOT use these in posts/comments. The majority of people will have no idea what you mean unless they read dictionaries in their free time.
    – loneboat
    Apr 5 '16 at 14:17
  • 3
    @loneboat - You nailed it. As this website says: Obviously with paper dictionaries space is a major issue. In this case, sb and sth stand for two relatively long words that appear in dictionary definitions over and over again. Conceivably, then, it's not just about saving ink, it's about saving paper, too, and keeping the printing costs down.
    – J.R.
    Apr 5 '16 at 15:17
  • 3
    @GalacticCowboy So, I'd be far more worried about giving learners an enjoyable learning experience - probably the most important thing we can do. That would involve not chiding them for using abbreviations that they have every reason to use in the right context. So that's the secondary reason for me posting this question - to help native speakers not involved in teaching understand why students are using these abbreviations. Apr 6 '16 at 19:36

Dictionaries traditionally use a lot of abbreviations. This is because, like everything else, they used to just be printed volumes, not online resources, and they were trying to cram as much information into a small a space as possible. Thus, they developed abbreviations for parts of speech, like v. for verb, for characteristics of different words, like trans. for transitive. They also had abbreviations for placeholders that would be needed when describing different uses or senses of words, like sb for somebody and sth for something, so you can give definitions related to specific usages like "to give sb five" for the now rather dated gesture of slapping palms with someone.

There was, as I mentioned, a good reason for dictionaries to use these. There isn't a good reason to use them generally. Sure, use them yourself in your own notes for brevity - or because you don't want to write things out in full if abbreviations are good enough for you to understand your own notes; everyone should make notes however works best for them. They are, I understand, used other than in dictionaries just as a way to save space and effort. But if you're communicating with other people, people with whom you do not have a shared vocabulary of abbreviations that includes these, the risks of not being understood (and just seeming weird) are far greater than any possible benefit.


I do not have printed (paper) dictionaries, so I use the on-line versions of the dictionaries.

sb in the Cambridge Dictionary:

sb = written abbreviation for somebody or someone

sth in the Cambridge Dictionary

sth = written abbreviation for something

Of course, several words / expressions can be abbreviated as sb or sth.


Sb = stibium (antimonium)

SB = Sound Blaster

other uses for sb

other uses of sth

I found all that with a simple Google search. All information was on the first page of results. I will not copy / paste all definitions from all dictionaries, as it is not the point.

Are these proper words?

Hell, no! :) They are abbreviations, of course (I hope).

I already asked a specific question here.

Can I use these words in my essays, for example?

As far as I know, academic papers, like any formal communication, should use the minimum amount of abbreviation. Of course, some "famous" abbreviations are allowed (etc., e.g., i.e., names of institutions...), but other than that, not really.

Can I use these words in my posts on Stack Exchange?

Stack Exchange is a (mostly) informal place of communication, so abbreviations are not forbidden. However, their use can be ambiguous, and they should either be avoided, or disambiguated (defined).

Example: one question was about PC. The first words that popped into my head when I saw that, were "Personal Computer". However, OP meant "Politically Correct".


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