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I searched for the following two expressions and came across both being used in various places.

She smiled at me at the grocery store.

She smiled to me at the grocery store.

What is the difference between the two?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Smile at" is more common, so saying "smile to" is a way to indicate a more "decisive" smile, or intent to communicate via the smile.

I do not understand why others say "to" is incorrect here. It is less common, to be sure, but that does not make it incorrect. You can wave to a crowd, or wave at a crowd...but just because we say "wave to" more often, that does not make "wave at" incorrect.

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Perhaps it is ok, but I couldn't find any reference to "smile to" in a dictionary. –  Urbycoz Jun 15 '12 at 15:31
    
+1: My very thoughts. Just to prove the point, here are over 2000 written instances of "smiled to the crowd". –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '12 at 13:20
    
@FumbleFingers, however, "smiled at the crowd" has 51k written instances vs. "smiled to the crowd" has 2k (Google Books UK). And all these numbers are sort of meaningless, good as something to start with. You need to manually go through those examples, at least the first hundred. Year? Type of text/genre? Published where? Written by who etc. –  Alex B. Jun 16 '12 at 15:45
    
Well put. This is yet another issue that has more to do with style and commonality than strict correctness. My view is that the connotation should be presented as to what level of intimacy is present, although this probably doesn't hold up in all common use cases. Some examples: I whisper to the woman, having approached her after winking at her. I am talking to the mail carrier, having waved at him, and hearing him holler at me. "To" seems like the more direct, intimate, or active of the two, although I could be wrong, and phonetics and habits are probably factors. –  shinyspoongod Jun 17 '12 at 4:26
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@Alex B.: Such information might be enlightening, but the mere fact that it's not uncommon (albeit less common than "at") shows *"to"*it is at least "acceptable" to many - which is all I intended to convey. The idea that only one preposition is "correct" is untenable, to my mind. –  FumbleFingers Jun 17 '12 at 16:09
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Although I agree that "smiled to me" does get said sometimes, "smiled at me" is the technically correct version. Usage reflects this, as shown in this NGram shows:

enter image description here

Also, Dictionary.com does not have an entry for "smiled to", only "smiled at".

I wonder if "smile to" was invented as a gentler sounding form of "smile at", in the same way that "talk to" is gentler and less-aggressive than "talk at".

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+1 for actual data, and don't forget, "smile to" can also mean "smile because": "The proud father smiled to hear his daughter praised by strangers." –  Malvolio Jun 15 '12 at 15:45
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Also, you can smile to yourself. –  Alex B. Jun 15 '12 at 16:18
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And what does "technically correct" mean? –  Colin Fine Jun 15 '12 at 16:58
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-1 because I feel more strongly than @colin that bandying around statements like "smiled at me" is the technically correct version is completely unjustified. There may be some element of rationale in the fact that idiomatically "smiled to me" tends to be avoided, but that certainly doesn't make the alternative version "technically correct" - it's just "more common". –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '12 at 13:15
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@ColinFine -- technically correct is the best kind of correct! –  Malvolio Jun 16 '12 at 16:30
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I searched the BNC, and here are the results.

Ignoring cases like "smile to verb", "smile to oneself" or "smile to the side", I've been able to find only 4 examples of "smile to somebody".

In COCA, there are 15 examples only. I'd say it's pretty rare.

The OED does say that smile to somebody is possible, cf. "2a. To look on, upon, at, or to a person with a smile or pleasant expression. Also with advs., as back, down, over, up."

1749 T. Smollett tr. A. R. Le Sage Gil Blas IV. xii. xiii. 223 At these words of my god-daughter, I smiled to her father.

Now, there is another interesting expression, "to smile at/for/to the cameras".

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The second is not correct. I'm not sure what the technical term for it is, but smiling doesn't take an object - saying "she smiled at me" is like saying "she sat to me" or "she ate to me". It doesn't make sense. To a lesser extent, any expression is the same - you can frown at someone, but you can't frown to someone.

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According to this link, one should use "at" with static, non-movement verbs and "to" with verbs of movement. Hence, "she smiled at me" and then she "waved to me".

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Nice idea, but I'm not convinced that link is relevant - it's about the distinction between He stayed at home and He went to work. If the "rule" were generally applicable, we should expect "He spoke at me" to e more common than "He spoke to me", but clearly this isn't the case. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '12 at 13:35
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"Smiled at me" seems to be the right choice. "Smiled to me" is awkward.

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