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Between 'pay' and 'give' I guess you are most likely to choose 'give' for the blank below. However, 'pay' sounds more suited for the second 'attention.' I wonder why. Is it because the second sentence is in the negative, or because the first is in the order of (person) (attention), not the other way around: (attention) to (person)?

All of us were supposed to [pay/give] Chris our undivided attention for the next hour, but I didn't pay him much attention because I was not at all interested in the topic.

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Usually you either pay attention [to someone/something] or give your attention [to someone]. So in your sentence "give" fits the first slot, and "pay" the second. Word order, first/second person, negation, and qualifiers like "much" are irrelevant. It's just whether the attention is possessed - in which case it's give my/your/our attention, otherwise pay attention. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 0:12

3 Answers 3

As far as I can tell, pay is used when there is no possessive adjective (e.g. my, his, etc) before the attention:

I didn't pay him much attention.

Give is used when there is such an adjective:

All of us were supposed to give Chris our undivided attention.

It is interesting that give attention (without the possessive) hasn't always been uncommon, though it's always lagged behind by a factor of at least two:

As you see, pay attention currently leads by ten times or more.

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Is the ngram really fair? While the phrase 'pay attention to' is quite commonly used in that exact form, isn't 'give attention' usually used as 'give [X] [some/more/..] attention'? –  Unreason Oct 27 '11 at 8:56
    
The Ngram is only comparing the unusual use of give attention (ie. without an adjective modifying attention) with the common use of pay attention. I tried to make that clear by saying (without the possessive) in my post. Hence, the usual use of give attention is not graphed. –  Daniel Oct 27 '11 at 17:36
    
    
I provided two very distinct examples from printed literature to show that it occurs on both ends of the “formality” spectrum. It is not, however, common. –  tchrist Dec 7 at 16:23

i think give attention means to seperate yourself, perhaps for a few moments in time to devote yourself to another human being, while pay attention is requiring of a task at hand, giving is simply giving without strings attached if done right. i mean devotion sounds like it has strings attached but its like this: its goes both ways, its attention to the act of attention itself~!!! while paying attention requires a second matter to complete its congruency

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I find your answer rather hard to follow but it would definitely be improved by citing some sources to give evidence that the definitions you give are common in English, rather than just your own feelings on the matter. –  David Richerby Dec 7 at 20:59

I personally feel that "give attention to" means you spare your concentration on that matter, while "pay attention to" means you need to notice that matter. That means you give attention to a matter when you do several things at the same time, while you pay attention just means you notice the matter.

For example:

When you drive a plane, you need to give attention to instructions from the ground guide while concentrating on your driving.

While you wait for a flight, you pay attention to the announcement for the boarding notice.

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And your basis for that distinction is? –  TrevorD May 19 '13 at 22:33

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