"Refrain" feels like something to use about "verbal behaviour", whereas "avoid" feels like it's about something physical. Is it?

  • 2
    I think you're right about avoid, but I think refrain from has more to do with "not doing" than with anything specifically verbal. A person might sit at a bar with friends for hours and refrain from drinking, but a person who wanted to avoid drinking might not go into the bar at all. – Sven Yargs Dec 4 '14 at 2:54

No, of course they are not interchangeable for everything. They are different words. Two different words are by definition not interchangeable for everything.

Beyond that, refrain from refers to not doing something. Avoiding something is not the same. Avoiding doing something is less strong/absolute than refraining from doing it.

You can avoid overeating, but still overeat sometimes. If you really do refrain from overeating then you do not overeat, period.

A better synonym for refrain from is abstain from, not avoid.

  • to refrain from something is to choose not to do it when confronted with the opportunity. To avoid something is to ensure that you are never confronted with the opportunity. – Jim Dec 4 '14 at 4:29

It's also easy to get avoid confused with a similar word, evade.

Refrain is to resist doing. Avoid is to stay clear from.


"To refrain" is to hold something back. In modern usage it's used purely to refer to holding oneself back. "He refrained." means he stopped himself from doing something and "She refrained from smoking." means she stopped herself from smoking. There no particular connotation of verbal action.

"To avoid" is broader. It can mean abstaining from an activity, but it can also mean trying to remain away from something which need not be an activity, or if it is an activity, need not be performed be the subject.

"He refrains from dancing." means he doesn't dance.

"He avoids dancing." could just mean he doesn't dance or it could mean that he stays away from people who dancing as well.

"Refrain" can also be used as a noun to mean something which is repeated: typically either repeated section of verse like a chorus in a song or a commonly repeated saying.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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