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"‘Steer clear of Strait Steet,’ he advised wryly, turning away, ‘otherwise you may be wrong. "

"I purposely steer away from‘political messages."

These are two sample sentences in I found in BNC. "Steer away from" can be used in boat-steering. "Steer clear of" is more used as a verb phrase to mean "keep away from".

But the two cases I gave, the former phrase just was used the way the latter was to be used. And the latter used the way the former used. So does this justify me treating them as being interchangeable?

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They're not really "interchangeable". As OP has already discovered, it's quite unexceptional in a navigational context to steer away from the pavement, for example. You can steer towards or away from anything that's near your route/vehicle/ship - it's all a matter of where you're headed.

But the idiomatic figurative meaning is almost always phrased as you should steer clear of [whatever you're being advised to avoid]. Google Books estimates over 10,000 written instances in that link, compared to just 332 instances of you should steer away from [something bad.]

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"Steer away from", to my ear, has a clear implication that you are otherwise heading in that direction.

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I concur. Also, it may be that you have already gotten too "close." I would say "Steer clear" is a warning, whereas "steer away" is an admonition. All that said, I've never heard "steer away" in my 36 years of existence, but I have heard "steer clear" countless times. – Lumberjack Sep 24 '13 at 2:09

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