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I came across a sentence where it was written that " Mr. X got a pat on the back from his boss".

I know that the boss definitely would have praised him. But why it couldn't be like "Mr. X got praise by his boss".

I think both the sentence have the same meaning at all.

So what's the catch to use the first statement?

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Note: "at all" can only be used if the verb is negative: I don't think that both sentences have the same meaning at all. For the positive case, you should say something like I think both sentences have the exact same meaning. –  JSBձոգչ May 14 '12 at 19:32
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Patting people on the back is not a congratulatory gesture found only in English-speaking countries. Many Asian countries have the same gesture and the same associated meaning. So it's not hard to extend the meaning of the physical gesture to its figurative sense, i.e., to congratulate an individual. –  deutschZuid May 14 '12 at 22:28
    
I am wondering (and some answers touch on it indirectly) if the phrase carries the implication that there was no further or larger benefit. I often encounter this phrase in contexts where the pat on the back was considered to be insufficient reward. –  horatio May 15 '12 at 17:59

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

This expression typically alludes to verbal praise, but it could be extended to other tangible ways of recognizing a job well done.

Let's say that Joe works for Paul, and Joe has been doing a good job. (Perhaps he's done a good job for the past year, or maybe he's been working on a special project for a few weeks.) Either way Paul wants to formally recognize Joe's achievements, that is, he wants to give Joe a figurative pat on the back.

He could do this in a number of ways: he could thank Joe privately, or he could offer his kudos publicly. He could give Joe a day off or a small bonus. He might even give Joe a raise or recommend him for a promotion. Any of these could be ways to give Joe a pat on the back, that is, to recognize and acknowledge Joe's achievements, and thank or praise him for those accomplishments.

Someone might want to be recognized for his own good work too and give himself a pat on the back. That expression is often used sardonically though, in response to someone who is perhaps bragging too much:

Dwight: Last month, I had more sales than anyone else in the office.
Jim: Well, you should give yourself a pat on the back, then!

When used in this context there's a certain deliberate awkwardness to it, because it's much more difficult to put your hand literally on your own back than on someone else's.

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In English-speaking countries, it's common to literally pat someone on the back if they have done a good job. The idiom to pat someone on the back simply refers to the physical action of patting them on the back. However, the idiom can be used even if no literal back-patting has occurred, as a way to suggest that they received praise or recognition for their work. This is an instance of metonymy.

The verb to praise is not commonly used in colloquial English, though it occurs more often in formal contexts. For that reason, you'd be unlikely to say "Mr. X was praised by his boss" as opposed to using a different idiom.

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There are some different connotations between pat on the back and praise, even when not used ironically:

  • a pat on the back is almost always in response to someone's actions, typically suggesting that they took on a task that had not been done by others. (Even when used ironically, it's often criticizing them for doing something they shouldn't have done, or for actions which didn't deserve recognition)
  • a pat on the back is informal and low-key, between the person doing the thanking and the person being thanked. Praising someone is a verbal thing and may be low key, but is much more likely to be public and formal.
  • a pat on the back suggests an acknowledgement that the person did something to help and a thankfulness for that help.

You can praise someone for having a wonderful singing voice -- but you'd never give them a pat on the back for it on its own. You might give them a pat on the back if they sang at a benefit concert, though.

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Note, this is often used ironically.

Your misguided efforts led to a disaster, and you still don't feel guilty for the outcome. Someone affected by the outcome would say: "You sure deserved a pat on the back" (or even "You can pat yourself on the back" for added venom).

Alternatively your titanic effort received only small, worthless token reward. "He singlehandedly saved the company from bankruptcy, and all he got was a pat on his back from his boss."

I don't think "praise" can be used in contexts like these.

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