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At a cursory glance, these two terms appear to be synonyms. But that would strike me as unusual since one is a prefixed form of the other. (Prefixes are used to modify a word in a specific and consistent way. As a result, the prefixed form of a word has a different meaning than the word.)

"Per-" confers a quality of thoroughness or fullness. But in the context of ambulation, this doesn't seem like a significant modifier (to me).

Am I wrong, or are "ambulate" and "perambulate" synonyms?

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A quick lookup shows that perambulate can have the additional connotation of "for pleasure and in a leisurely way". For me it has the feeling of walking while taking in one's surrounding (in alignment with the "per" prefix), whereas ambulate is just a way to get from point A to point B. –  tcovo Jan 6 '12 at 21:07
    
@tcovo Can you provide a link to where you found that definition? –  cheeken Jan 6 '12 at 21:14
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An important difference not mentioned in answers so far is that without the word perambulate we would not have the word pram, a shortening of perambulator. –  jwpat7 Jan 6 '12 at 21:16
    
@cheeken I got that definition from a Google search result, which apparently uses the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. –  tcovo Jan 6 '12 at 21:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'd say you are wrong.

To ambulate is to move by means of walking, parallel to the way brachiate means to move by means of swinging with your arms from hold to hold.

To perambulate is to walk through, or to traverse, something. Perambulate therefore can take an object to be traversed. You can "ambulate idly all afternoon", but rather than "perambulating idly all afternoon"; you should "perambulate the yard idly", or some such thing.

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At least one source disagrees, offering an intransitive version of perambulate. –  Robusto Jan 6 '12 at 21:15
    
According to Dictionary.com, perambulate can be used with or without an object. Do you have a different source that disagrees? –  cheeken Jan 6 '12 at 21:16
    
So noted. I should scroll down the dictionary.com page further sometimes. :-) Post updated to indicate that it can take an object, rather than must. –  Hellion Jan 6 '12 at 21:23
    
MW offers traverse as a synonym of perambulate, and walk as a synonym of ambulate, but does not list them as synonyms of each other. –  Gnawme Jan 7 '12 at 0:39

I cannot show any evidence for this but I suspect that perambulate does not use the prefix per- meaning through, but instead a shortening of the prefix peri- meaning about (Greek περί but also used in Latin).

Every case I know of perambulate suggests returning to the starting point, either wandering around (i.e. without a destination) for the purpose of exercise and fresh air (hence pram) or surveying boundaries by walking them.

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I'm not convinced about peri-, but I agree perambulate invariably means walk about (nearby: promenade/stroll, then return). Added to which it used to be quite common - but now it's positively dated. And ambulate, which used to be vanishingly rare, is now standard usage in the medical/physiotherapy context. –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 '12 at 2:26

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