Is "hold out a promise" the same meaning as "make a promise"? Or did I misunderstand them? I found definitions for "make a promise", but couldn't find definitions for "hold out a promise".
Jon is correct, and I am such a beginner that I hesitate to horn in here, and I do so only to make certain that the answer is absolutely clear. Please pardon the intrusion.
It's a bit confusing because there are two verbs used, but neither is used as they normally are. "Make" a promise? "Hold" out a promise?
To make a promise is a common expression meaning that you have vowed to another person that you will follow through on certain matters, such as your intent to marry her, or clean the front yard, or go grocery shopping. It is a direct declaration between two or more people.
On the other hand, to hold out a promise refers to a situation that appears to point to a particular conclusion, that a promise will end in a certain way. The three-week-old milk bottles held the promise of containing rotten milk, so we threw them away.
Something can "hold promise," meaning that it may offer the prospect of beneficial but not yet realized consequences. A person may "withhold a promise," meaning that the person declines to become duty-bound to perform something. And of course a person can "hold out X" in the sense of extending X in his or her hand. But the phrase "hold out a promise," I think, lies in a murky realm of its own, apart from those relatively clear alternatives.
The likeliest intended meaning of any contextless instance of "hold out a promise," in my opinion, is the meaning that I gave above for "hold promise." But it's at least possible that the speaker/writer intends the phrase in the sense of dangling the possibility of a future promise in front of someone, without committing to it in the present. Or again (as you suggest) the person could simply mean "make a promise." In any event, the wording as given is both inherently confusing and readily avoidable, which are two good reasons not to use it.
EDIT: To follow up on the "dangling a promise" meaning of "hold out a promise," I note that two of the first three unique Google results for "hold out a promise" are as follows:
From a sermon by Joshua Brooks (1840):
From a Denver Post story (2011):
In both instances, the author's focus on the dangling of the promise serves immediately afterward to underscore the falseness of the promise.
I would have thought this was a general reference, but an attempt to find such a reference has failed, so I'll answer instead.
It's close to "make a promise", but "make a promise" generally means promise in the sense of a declaration that one will do (or refrain from doing) something. (The similar "hold [someone] to their promise" means to insist that that promise be kept).
"Hold out a promise" uses promise in the sense "a reason to expect something".
So if I said "the government made a promise that the tax changes would increase exports" that means that they actually said that exports would increase.
Whereas if I say "the tax changes hold out a promise of increasing exports," that means that I believe that exports will increase.
People make a promise. Anything, including people, but mostly conditions and events, hold out a promise.
It's not the same meaning. In make a promise, the meaning applicable is,
and in hold out a promise,