John Larrysson's Column: Somebody and Someone

A student asked the question, "What is the difference between somebody and someone?" My answer was that they mean exactly the same thing. This is the correct short answer. 

However the rule is that no two words in English have exactly the same meaning. Synonyms have slight differences. For example: warm and hot are synonyms; one is milder than the other. Also aroma and smell are synonyms and mean the same thing, but aroma suggests something pleasant, whereas smell can be used for anything wonderful or horrible. There is no rule preventing one from using aroma for a bad smell, but it would seem strange, because the word is not commonly used that way.  

[audio 1]

Both someone and somebody mean a person who is not known or named. Sometimes native speakers claim that someone is slightly more formal than somebody, but the difference is too small to be meaningful. There is a tendency in British English (according to the British National Corpus) to use the word somebody more often in spoken rather than written English. Still the difference is negligible. 

The difference is that the word somebody is occasionally used to refer to "A person of some note, consequence, or importance. Frequently with deprecatory or sarcastic force." (OED) For example: "I hired a handsome horse and furniture, that I might look like somebody." (P. Drake Memoirs, 1755) Peter Drake rented a horse and good furniture so that he would appear to be a person of wealth and importance, that is a somebody

[audio 2]

So the word somebody has a secondary meaning to refer to a person of supposed importance. A child might say, "I want to be a somebody" when asked about what they want to be when they grow up. They mean that they want to be a person that is important. The problem is that when I look for real life examples, I still find both someone and somebody alternately used for the same hypothetical person of importance. For example in the poem, I want to be a somebody, the words somebody and someone are interchanged.

[audio 3]

I want to be a somebody

I want to be a somebody 

Someone who does things right 

Someone who never hurts their friends 

Someone who never cries 

I want to be a person who doesn't always fail

Who never has to say goodbye 

Who never wants to die 

I want to be a human 

Someone who is accepted 

Someone who can walk in crowds 

Someone who is not an outcast 


I just want a life, and to be something important 

I for once want to do something right 


(Used with the author's permission)

[audio 4]

So against all expectation it seems that these two words are actually real perfect synonyms. They are the same word. We are not supposed to have perfect synonyms in English. So English breaks yet another rule.

[audio 5]

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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