Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I want to find out the differences in meaning among covered by, covered in, and covered with. For example, what is the difference between:

covered with blood
covered in blood

or the differences in meaning among

the mountain was covered with snow
the mountain was covered in snow
the mountain was covered by snow

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

The meanings are very similar, and these three prepositions can be used almost interchangeably, particularly in the context of your "The mountain is covered with/in/by snow" example. But some subtle nuances may apply.

When referring to a substance that sticks to another, use in or with, but not by:

  • The actress was covered in blood, or
  • The actress was covered with blood, but not
  • The actress was covered by blood.

Another example:

  • The ribs were covered with sauce, or
  • The ribs were covered in sauce, but not
  • The ribs were covered by sauce.

When referring something that physically protects something else, use with or by, but not in:

  • The field was covered with a tarp, or
  • The field was covered by a tarp, but not
  • The field was covered in a tarp.

Use covered with to indicate an unusual amount of something on top of something else; use covered by to connote a covering so dense that the object being covered is completely obscured from view:

  • The mountain was covered with fog.
  • The mountain was covered by fog.

Another example:

  • Our grass was covered with butterflies.
  • Our grass was covered by butterflies.

Somehow, the latter (covered by) paints a picture where the butterflies are so close together that I can hardly any the grass at all, but in the former (covered with), I picture a lot of butterflies, just not necessarily so many that I can't see the grass.

When talking about metaphorical coverage, use covered by:

  • The roof damage was covered by insurance, but not
  • The roof damage was covered with insurance, or
  • The roof damage was covered in insurance.

Another example:

  • The city council meeting was covered by the news station, but not
  • The city council meeting was covered with the news station, or
  • The city council meeting was covered in the news station.

Other guidelines are likely to apply as well. This is not a question with an easy and straightforward answer.

share|improve this answer

All three are in use, and the differences are subtle; but they do exist.

"Covered by" generally means that the covering actually hides the thing that is covered: it would usually be an object (a sheet, a lid, a curtain) rather than a substance, that is doing the covering. "Covered by blood" is unlikely, and "covered by snow" would imply that the snow is so deep that you can't see what it is covering. "Covered by blankets" is a more likely example.

"Covered in" is more metaphorical: the covering is widely distributed over the object, but does not actually hide it. "Covered in blood" is a typical expression, and does not usually mean that every single point on the surface has blood, rather that blood is widespread over it.

"Covered with" is somewhere in the middle, and can mean the same as either of the other two.

share|improve this answer
    
That's a good concise summary of the potential differences, but in practice I think OP's "snow" examples are a case where there's no difference in meaning between the three versions anyway. –  FumbleFingers Mar 12 '12 at 0:06
    
@FumbleFingers: well, I wouldn't say "a mountain covered by snow" for the reason I stated. –  Colin Fine Mar 15 '12 at 15:53
    
I guess that marks you as an exceptionally careful speaker! I've no doubt the tendency to make that distinction could be proved by comparing ratios for "mountains covered by/in/with snow" against those for something more likely covered to the point of being indiscernible (bushes?, plants?). All I can establish by a quick check is that "with" is far more common with everything, which is no surprise to me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '12 at 16:14

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 18 '13 at 10:04

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.