What's the difference between these two sentences?

Mary stared at the distance

Mary stared off at/into the distance

  • 2
    jano, intersting, +1! However, for what is worth, I think that "stared at the distance" is not idiomatic English because "the distance" is not a thing that you can "stare at". In other words, "the distance" is an unidentified space or place. But it would be proper to say "Mary stared at the wall behind you" in wich "the wall" is a concrete thing with a fixed place in the space around. Please, consider also "Mary stared off into the distance."
    – user19148
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 13:44
  • @Carlo_R. Thanks! (You should turn this into an answer). By the way, why "into" is more appropriate than "at"? For the same reason you just mentioned?
    – wyc
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 13:53
  • 1
    jano, idiomatic English is diffucult and I'm not sure of being able to answer this question, but, as I see "into" in your case, it give a sense of perspective and largeness, also a sense of throughness, that "at" doesn't render.
    – user19148
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 14:01
  • @Carlo_R. OK, I think I understand. I think it's like when you say "He feel into the darkness."
    – wyc
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 14:10
  • 1
    It’s not really like when you say, “He feel[s] into the darkness”, because you don’t say that—it makes no sense. Or did you mean, “He fell into (the) darkness”? Apart from that, Carlo is right. You stare at something that you can fix your eyes on; you stare (off) into something that you cannot fix your eyes on (the distance, space, nothingness, the abyss, thin air, etc.). Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 14:14

2 Answers 2


Per comments from Carlo and Janus, normally we only stare, look, peer, glare, etc. at things we can actually see.

We don't normally think of seeing things like distance, darkness, gloom, murk, etc. These are really words for the medium through which we [might possibly] see something.

There's scope for a degree of uncertainty here though. Although we normally stare at the horizon (which can be "seen"), and stare into the darkness or stare into the distance (abstract things that can't be "seen" as such), in all cases the links show a few instances using the "wrong" preposition.

In some cases (He looked at/into her eyes; She stared at/into the flames), both prepositions are possible (using into implies trying to discern something within or beyond the eyes/flames).

There's little difference between stare into the distance and stare off into the distance. Arguably, including off (less commonly, out, away) emphasises that you're not looking at anything more relevant that might be nearby (such as a person who's talking to you). But it's a fine distinction.

  • 1
    To make your example pairs a bit more tangible: her doctor might look at her eyes, but her lover would look into them; a scientist might stare at the flames, but a philosopher would stare into them. Also, I'd say that you stare into the distance when you're trying to make out something not yet visible - if you're a lookout, for example - and you stare off into the distance when you're daydreaming.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 3:13

Prepositions help the reader or listener understand the relationship (the logical relationship, the spacial relationship or the temporal relationship between words or phrases. Often as not that relationship is further clarified by the context of the rest of the sentence. Consequently, their informative value may be so slight that the selection of the "right" preposition is purely idiomatic. One stands "on line" to purchase a ticked to see a film in London, but he stands "in line" to purchase a ticket in the United States. Similarly, if I spend the night "in Mary's house" there is a suggestion that Mary is not present and I am making sure her house is inhabited while she is away. If I spend the night "at Mary's house" she, or at least her family, is there as well. If I find myself sleeping "with Mary," then there some suggestion that Mary and I are sleeping in the same bed and may have had sexual congress. When learning a 2nd language the subtle differences in the selection of prepositions are often the last things one learns.

  • -1 The OP asked what is the difference between stare at and stare off at. You are talking about something quite different. It's not a bad answer, but it's not right either. You can always edit your answer to make any necessary changes.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 9:50

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