The following is an extract taken from an Italian student's piece of English homework before I corrected it.

Also Mr Amos’s girlfriend, Sabina, arrives to the restaurant, and she assisted to David’s [Mr Amos] love confession to Anna. Then the waiter began singing his love to Anna. A fight broke out and Anna decided to leave the restaurant.

What's bothering me is the phrase: ... she assisted to David's love confession to Anna, which I corrected as

1) ... she listened as David confessed his love to Anna
and possibly
2) ... she listened to David's confession of love for Anna

But could I have left it as David's love confession?

3) ... she listened to David's love confession for Anna

The phrase to confess one's love is idiomatic and grammatical, but what about "one's love confession"? I can't explain why love confession is inappropriate (or ungrammatical).

Google is of no help, and Google Books gives a lot of false positives, which however confirm that love confession is at least, an unusual expression.

Examples of "his love confession" using Google's search engine. These are taken from the first three pages. Although the phrase "his love confession" appears to be common, it's clear the following are not written by native speakers.

  • A top Japanese star confesses his love for Kara's Nicole? On the recent episode of Japanese music show "Music Station" Nicole and Japanese rock band member from L'Arc~en~Ciel share an incident where Nicole receives his "love confession."

  • He was completely frustrated, this was all Takao's fault with his stupid love confession.

  • In a dream, Banri remembers that after his love confession to Linda, she agreed to tell him her response the following night on the bridge where Banri would have his accident.

  • Cho kyuhyun loved Seo Joo-hyun so much and started his own love confession to Seo Joo-hyun. He started giving lots of presents to Seo Joo-hyun which make Seo Joo-hyun's life miserable.

  • Ji Hyun Woo Shares His Thoughts For First Time After His Sudden Love Confession

The excerpt is from a student's summary of a short American story. The original author does not use the word confession or vow in any form, shape or size. It is the only the student's attempt (and quite a good one too IMO) to summarise the episode at the restaurant table. My query is not whether there is a better way to rephrase love confession, but as to whether it is idiomatic, acceptable and easily understood. I believe it is not idiomatic, but I can't explain why it is not "acceptable".

  • Not the DV, but a question - does that statement really help you? I'm curious. Does anyone ever reverse, or make one's down-voter confession as a result? Anyway, I wish I was teaching English in Italy... Maybe it's because they think love confession is ok. Mar 14, 2015 at 20:31
  • @medica he's a good kid, does his homework then comes to me. We have a few laughs, but when time's short and/or the grammatical explanation doesn't come immediately to mind, I tell him that we'll talk about it next week.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 14, 2015 at 20:38
  • Wow, there is a difference in meaning ? I need to think about it now. In grammar, there is no difference between grammar and usage; but in usage there is. Mar 15, 2015 at 5:30
  • 2
    It is clearly neither a matter of idiomatics nor collocations, but semantics here. The reference is to the noun confession with an incidental qualification of love, the focus needed to be on the main subject. Confession of love would have defeated the purpose by diverting attention toward love (with, incidentally, its confession). The wording must have come to the author instinctively from the thought process, not literary technique.
    – Kris
    Mar 19, 2015 at 15:09
  • 1
    @LittleEva There is no translation, it is the student's own words. In Italian the verb "assistere" looks very similar to the English assist, but the meaning is not exactly the same. Here the student wants to say that Sabina was present (i.e. she listened) when David told Anna he loved her. tchrist's answer explains it better than I do :) The student is doing what many non-native speakers do, he thinks in his mother tongue and then translates it into English.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21, 2015 at 17:23

11 Answers 11


Matters of Love and War

Both your first two versions seem fine, but the third one does not. As you observe, confession of love is the normal collocation, not *love confession, but it is hard to pin down precisely why that should be so.

It is not so much a matter of grammar but rather one of customary couplings of one word to another. For some combinations, one uses love attributively in front of the noun, but for others, one needs the full prepositional version with love trailing along afterwards.

After all, one has love scenes, love stories, love letters, love bites, love songs, love affairs, love interests, love offerings, and love potions — amongst many others. But one today has only labo(u)r of love not *love labo(u)r (despite Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost). This is like how one has affairs of the heart not *heart affairs.

Perhaps this is because when love is used attributively, it may in at least some cases more strongly attract the “about” or “for” notion than the simpler “of” notion. A love story is a story about love. A love potion is a potion for love, not of it.

But that is not a particularly strong tendency, and in some combinations it does not hold.

Really then, given two nouns XXX and YYY in English, whether you can (or must) say the XXX of YYY or the YYY XXX or YYY’s XXX often depends on which version people are most accustomed to hearing and seeing. This can change over time, too.

Besides love, another word whose combinations are not always predictable is war. Consider dogs of war, fog of war, tug of war, prisoners of war, spoils of war, case for war. A war dog would be something else altogether, as would be a war case or a war tug, so we do not say those. With war fog, war spoils, and war prisoners, we just aren’t used to saying them that way. In particular, war fog seems to make no sense at all.

In contrast, we do have war efforts, war crimes, war reporters, war rooms, war dead, and of course war heroes. And we have only crimes of passion, never *passion crimes.

I think your confession of love is like that: that’s how we’re used to hearing it, so that’s what our ear is expecting.

Translation Hazards for Romance Speakers

I notice that your student is calquing Italian assistere in its “attend” or perhaps “join” sense and then dragging along the preposition with it. Neither works well in today’s English.

I’m presuming the desired sense is that Sabina did not so much aid in the confession but rather attended it — that is, she joined them or simply happened to be present to overhear the confession. (Whether the thought was to listen to or to hear or to overhear, well, that’s something else, more related to intent.)

I’ve often heard this very same calquing of this particular verb into English by native speakers of Romance languages with the same verb, whatever its cognate in their respective Latin-derived language. As you note, it doesn’t really carry that “attend” sense in the English — the English of today, that is.

It is quite true that assist could once upon a time do both jobs in English just as it still does in Romance. But these days using it just to mean standing by or being present sounds rather “off” to us. The OED marks three out of the four such senses of assist as obsolete, and the fourth one’s latest citation specifically notes that this is the “French” sense of the verb.

When presenting Shakespeare unedited, this can cause confusion. For example, in The Tempest, this line occurs:

The King, and Prince, at prayers, let’s assist them.

That is not the assist that means aid, but rather the now-obsolete one that meant join them or accompany them. If the word is left unaltered, modern audiences may become confused over its intended sense.

Speaking of dragging the preposition along with it, the choice of arrive to instead of the normal arrive at is also unfortunate, and another sure sign that we’re dealing with a Romance speaker with just one preposition a for situations where English variously uses to or at, plus sometimes in and in less common cases even from.

The Romance learner needs to learn precisely which English preposition a maps to on a case-by-case basis, including those cases where no preposition at all is the best choice. This is just like how the English learner studying Romance must do the same thing going the other direction, for no overarching rule applies. Every verb’s “preposition affinities” are strongly idiomatic and vary from one language to the next.

  • 1
    Thank you. I've read the answer three times now, so rest assured your time was not wasted. As for the assistere = "assist" expression, a good alternative I find is in the verb witness as in: "She witnessed his confession".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 14, 2015 at 23:22
  • 4
    An excellent discussion of the issues raised by the OP's question.
    – Erik Kowal
    Mar 15, 2015 at 2:28
  • 2
    Googling "love confession" returns more results than "confession of love" does, so your claim that the latter is the normal collocation is a bit dubious.
    – Ink
    Mar 15, 2015 at 2:53
  • 1
    @Ink And “*innocence confession’? I think not. It has to be a “confession of innocence”.
    – tchrist
    Mar 15, 2015 at 3:09
  • 2
    @Ink I believe a native speaker would normally say: "She listened to his declaration of love". That is the most idiomatic expression in my opinion. Brevity was not the issue.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 15, 2015 at 7:22

A confession of love is a confession that one loves. Similarly, a declaration of love is a declaration that one loves, an assertion of love is an assertion that one loves, and evidence of love is evidence that one (or someone) loves.

In each of these cases it sounds odd (at least to me as a native speaker) to speak of a love confession, a love declaration, a love assertion or love evidence.

The other examples where love is used attributively cannot be expanded into a that-clause containing the verb 'to love'. So a love story is not a story that one (necessarily) loves, but a story about love. And a love child is not a child that one (necessarily) loves, but a child conceived in love.

If the principle suggested above is correct, then we would expect a preference for post-modification with an of-phrase (over the corresponding attributive use) in other noun combinations that can be expanded into a that-clause. And this is indeed the case for the following pairs of phrases:

?a knowledge denial - a denial of knowledge (a denial that one knew) Ngram

?a help assurance - an assurance of help (an assurance that one will help) Ngram

The principle also applies when the that-clause contains a copula and the adjectival form of the noun used attributively or in the of-phrase:

?a guilt confession - a confession of guilt (a confession that one is guilty) Ngram

?an interest admission - an admission of interest (an admission that one is interested) Ngram

?an excellence sign - a sign of excellence (a sign that something is excellent) Ngram

None of the Ngrams for the phrases above yield any results at all for the attributive version.


Having had the time to investigate this issue a little further, I offer this addendum as a brief discussion of the principles governing the premodification of nouns by other nouns. The main source of this additional information is Quirk et al's A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (p1330-1331).

Quirk notes that there is a general tendency in noun phrases such that:

" ... the premodifying structure has reduced explicitness in relation to the postmodifying structure, and if the relationships between the nouns become unclear or unpredictable, premodification is unacceptable."

According to Quirk, the Lincoln road and this grammar book are "fully possible premodification alternatives by prepositional phrase" to the postmodified the road to Lincoln and this book on grammar.

But ?fire action and ?this sentence meaning "have an unusual ring" about them as equivalents of action in case of fire and the meaning of this sentence. And ?the church house is not explicit enough to show the relationship in the house beyond the church. Finally, *a stream tree is "unacceptable" as an alternative to a tree by a stream.

It could be therefore that a love confession or a love declaration "have an unusual ring about them" because the relationship between the nouns is unclear or unpredictable. So a love confession could be a confession that one makes while one is in love or a confession about a previous love, as well as a confession that one is in love.

I'm not sure that this is a completely convincing explanation. But Quirk does not provide any criteria by which the lack of clarity or the unpredictability of the relationship between the two nouns could be determined. And I for one do not see any lack of clarity in the questionable phrase ?this sentence meaning.

  • 2
    Nor do I find any ambiguity in "love confession." Your assertion is well-put, but I find the theory overly deterministic.
    – user98990
    Mar 23, 2015 at 14:37
  • 1
    @Little Eva. Well, the assertion is from Quirk, who says: "if the relationships between the nouns become unclear or unpredictable, premodification is unacceptable". I hedged my comment on whether this is the reason for love confession having "an unusual ring" with the words "it could be that ..". I don't know if this is an adequate explanation, but at least it is plausible. And it is certainly the case that a love confession is ambiguous out of context.
    – Shoe
    Mar 24, 2015 at 15:25
  • I was referring to your principle primarily which you then associated with Quirk. Virtually any phrase is vulnerable to ambiguity out of context, though, for me, "love confession" is not one of those. I didn't claim the construction was "poetic", only that I have a poet's ear. As to the rest it seems you have either not read my answer or misunderstand it. Please read the dialogue between OP and me in comment below my answer. I enjoyed your answer, Shoe. :-)
    – user98990
    Mar 24, 2015 at 15:40
  • @Little Eva, you have an interesting exchange going with Mary Lou in the comments under your post. I rather suspect that any student who demonstrates the level of sophistication needed to knowingly choose the marked "love confession" over the unmarked "confession of love" is not a student who is in need of English lessons.
    – Shoe
    Mar 24, 2015 at 15:55
  • 1
    Agreed. I think OP's question is very interesting. It has generated some good quality answers and comments, most certainly including yours!
    – Shoe
    Mar 24, 2015 at 16:11

We can have confessions of love and professions of love (not to be confused with "the oldest profession").

Common sense informs us that a man stands a better chance of having his love reciprocated when he professes to love a woman than when he confesses to love her.

Sometimes a guy needs a wing-man who assists with the profession of love in some manner.

  • Good and funny. Continuing on your reasoning, a "confession of love " is a singular event, whereas a "profession of love " should probably occur at regular intervals, no?
    – user98990
    Mar 23, 2015 at 15:30
  • At random intervals, perhaps. At regular intervals is too much like rotating the tires.
    – TimR
    Mar 23, 2015 at 22:47
  • That, unfortunately, is the price of bliss. :-)
    – user98990
    Mar 24, 2015 at 13:42
  • Bliss is overrated.
    – TimR
    Mar 24, 2015 at 13:47

The phrase to confess one's love is idiomatic and grammatical, but what about "one's love confession"? I can't explain why love confession is inappropriate (or ungrammatical).

While “love confession” is unusual, in my opinion it is neither unidiomatic nor ungrammatical. It sounds, rather, categorical or titular, i.e., a “love letter” as opposed to a “letter of love.” If “love confession,” in comparison with “confession of love,” has a virtue, that virtue lies precisely in its unfamiliarity. Whereas the competing construction, “confession of love,” is so formulaic and commonplace as to be banal.

To me, what would be of primary interest here---after, of course, a determination of grammatical vs ungrammatical issue---is whether or not the student’s formulation was knowing and intentional, or whether the end result was merely a fortunate, or unfortunate, accident.

Sample results of a google search for “love confession” (and these are not false positives):

15 Great Love Confessions in Film and TV; Movies; Lists Feb 14, 2013

And yet, the love confession has become one of pop culture's most popular go-to tropes. great love confessions

Love Confession---TV Tropes

The Love Confession trope as used in popular culture. This is when one character makes a declaration of love to another. Google, “TV Tropes” love confession

Love Confessions | Facebook

Love Confessions. 2048 likes • 16 talking about this. Ever fallen in Love? Confess here how u felt? love confession

Love Confessions---Amazon.com

Love Confessions: Activating the Power of the Love of God Through the Spoken Word. Love Confessions

Japan's "Love Confessing" Culture---Tofugu

You may go out with the person a few times or go out on a group date, but your relationship hasn't technically started until this love confession, aka kokuhaku, occurs... Love Confessing

Love Confession on Tumblr

Find and follow posts tagged love confession on Tumblr.

Then, of course, there is:

Love Confessions---Wikipedia

Love Confessions is the second studio album by American R&B singer Miki Howard. Released in 1987 under Atlantic Records, the album peaked at No. 145.

The Love Connection

an American television game show (1983–1998), hosted by Chuck Woolery, in which singles attempted to connect with a compatible partner.

The Love Boat

an American television series (1977–1987) set on a cruise ship

  • 1
    But you do not say: "My/your/his etc. love confession to"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21, 2015 at 18:24
  • 3
    Remove "love" and you have, "Sabina listened to David's [ ] confession to Anna" - nothing wrong with this as far as I can tell. What would sound wrong, to me, would be to say, "Sabina listened to David's [ ] confession for Anna". Does the inclusion of "love" make it ungrammatical?
    – user98990
    Mar 21, 2015 at 18:36
  • It's Google Books which gives a lot of false positives, Google doesn't see the period. Go and figure... But thank you for the feedback nevertheless :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21, 2015 at 18:36
  • 1
    Certainly, @curiousdannii, there are times when exorcizing a word would make all the difference in the world. I was trying to demonstrate that the awkwardness or remarkability of "love confession", in the exemplar, is not due to it being ungrammatical but rather to it being unfamiliar in comparison to "confession of love". Sabina listened to David's love confession to Anna is grammatically acceptable, if idiomatically unusual.
    – user98990
    Mar 22, 2015 at 14:27
  • 1
    I seem to have a run afoul of a valued friend. Sorry. I think my answer is as clear as your question. The construction is not ungrammatical; the construction is hardly unheard of, but its frequency of usage pales in comparison with the other. If it has a virtue, that virtue lies solely in its unfamiliarity. The competing construction is standard and unremarkable. To me, what would be dispositive (were I the teacher) is whether or not the student’s construction was knowing or a result of ignorance. Try to understand my answer had to be distinguished from Shoe and tchrist's responses. Not easy
    – user98990
    Mar 24, 2015 at 14:54

I have nothing on hand to back this up. But my personal usage of these two phrases is the following:

A love confession is a confession of one's love to someone who prior to the confession did not already know he or she is loved by the speaker. In contrast, a confession of love is given to one's current lover to whom the confession does not come as new information.

For example, a person would make a "love confession" to his best friend's wife. However, the same person would make a "confession of his love" to his own wife on Valentine's Day.


The misuse of (and legitimate need to correct) “assisted to” aside, the repetition of “to” in the Student’s original answer (assisted TO + confession TO) contributes heavily to my perception that it is somehow "wrong" or at least awkward.
Your decision to replace “assisted to” with “listened to” did nothing to resolve this “too many TOs” issue and tempted me at first to conclude that “love confession” must be the culprit.

It’s interesting to note that when asking if the Student’s use of “love confession” should have been maintained, you (intentionally?) "resolve" this issue by replacing “love confession TO Anna” with “3) … she listened to David’s love confession FOR Anna,” which is not what the Student wrote at all, and which, as Little Eva notes in an astute comment, does “sound wrong.”
Regardless of how it sounds, however, “love confession FOR Anna” is, again, not what the Student wrote and is therefore not the phrase at issue.

In order to fairly evaluate the Student’s actual use of “love confession TO Anna” on its own, without the awkwardness caused by “one too many TOs,” I feel that “assisted to” should be replaced by something other than “listened to.”
Any synonym not requiring “to” would work to provide this fair evaluation of the Student’s choice of words, and I notice that you suggested “witnessed” in a comment above, which is fine:

“ … she witnessed David’s love confession to Anna.”

Personally, I would use "heard" as my verb choice to conduct this fair evaluation for I believe it more closely describes the action of hearing a confession than "witnessed" does. Regardless, with “heard,” "witnessed," or any suitable synonym not requiring "to" in place of “assisted to/listened to” the Student’s answer gets the opportunity it deserves to be fairly evaluated and in my opinion, loses much, if not all, of its awkwardness:

… she heard David’s love confession to Anna.

(Now if it’s true, as you mentioned in response to Little Eva’s good answer, that “… you do not say: "My/your/his etc. love confession to," then, of course, the issue is resolved; but then again, if it is so clear that “… [one does] not say: "My/your/his etc. love confession to," why was this ever deemed to be an issue in the first place?)

  • I'm afraid I disagree, "overheard" is not correct. in the American short story Sabina is present at the restaurant table while her boyfriend declares his love for Anna. "Overheard" suggests that hearing the news was either accidental, or that the speaker (the confessor) was unaware of Sabina listening. The issue is I can't explain why "love confession" sounds wrong. I was asking for an explanation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 22, 2015 at 20:16
  • Either heard or listened will do. My question doesn't ask about this.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 22, 2015 at 20:53
  • @Mari-Lou A Is the expression 'She listened to David's love confession' more problematical for you than 'She listened to David's love confession for Anna'? Is it the modification of 'love' by 'for Anna', that jars when the noun adjunct form is used?
    – R KING
    Mar 23, 2015 at 8:15
  • @RKING I don't know how to make my question clearer than it is. If you feel that omitting (my addition) "for" makes the sentence sound more idiomatic, then could you explain "why"? Moreover, I don't see this difference between "to" and "for" where the verb confess is involved. I confess something to a person. I confess my love for a person. Both prepositions can be used.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 23, 2015 at 9:27

There seems to be some confusion over the essential meaning of nouns 'in apposition' in English. So-called 'apposition' in English is general, not relating to a specific example, so a 'love confession' is not wrong; but it means 'a confession relating to love' while 'confession of love' means 'a confession about a specific love' - in this case, obviously his.

Indeed, his 'love confession' could equally well be a confession that he does not reciprocate her love; his 'confession of love' could not carry that meaning.

  • 'love confession' could equally well be a confession that he does not reciprocate her love; his 'confession of love' could not carry that meaning. That's an interesting interpretation of two phrases that, IMO, carry the same semantic value. If you can support your assertion with linked references, I'll upvote.
    – user98990
    Mar 24, 2015 at 13:59

I hope I am not duplicating anything said above (I don't think so, but them is a lot of words). For me, the two versions are different primarily because one uses a common word order and the other does not.

A love confession does not sound special or important. The quotidian formulation suggests that there are many kinds of confession and this one happens to be (an ordinary, banal) one (of many) relating to love. ("Whose love confession shall we hear tonight")

A confession of love has a formality of structure that suggests the love is especially significant.

Consider how these two versions sound

She understood the flower he gave her to be a confession of love

She understood the flower he gave her to be a love confession (and not, say, a guilt confession)

  • Yes indeed @PapaPoule! I've altered, to level the playing field. I do agree with you tho', there's not a lot in it.
    – Dan
    Mar 25, 2015 at 22:57

We are in the territory of style and creative way of expressing ourselves. I don't see any substantial grammatical or syntactic violation in either of the two parts of the question.

1) "love confession"

It is somewhat understood, but not standard, and not commonly used. I checked a 450-million-word American English corpus there is none. (COCA)

2) "Confession of love" is common, used and standard; however, if this to have a more subtle nuances "to encourage David to confess his love for Anna..." because the writer seems to place some premium on another person's role to induce David to spill the beans.

Oh, "love confession" is not an idiomatic phrase in English.


My vote goes to "one's confession of love".

The reason is simply that a noun cannot qualify another noun directly , so to signify the possession of former over latter, one must use either apostrophe or 'of'. In the phrase One's love confession 'love' and 'confession' are inappropriately connected. Further since both 'love' and 'Confession' are non-living nouns the possession of former over latter should be denoted using 'of'.

Thus in my opinion one's confession of love correct.


Just my take. At Google Books:

  1. "confessed his love"

About 81,200 results

  1. "confession of love"

About 18,300 results

  1. "love confession"

About 3,950 results

This to me shows clearly that you have to make every effort to use 1, as it seems that in this particular case the native speakers are simply much more comfortable with the action than with the noun phrases referring to it :-)

This also tells us that your choice 1) is much better than the other two.

Now that we have "confessed his love" as a clear part of the target sentence, how about the rest?

"assisted"? No, this is too intellectual — as cold as a fish. It's also, I would guess, not Old Saxon, but imported with the Normans, thus not affecting the native guts as sharply. Use it when you write something formal, analytical, perhaps in managerial jargon, but not when you want to be emotional.

"listened"? Better, but not good enough, as it doesn't reflect her visual experience. She might do that even from behind a door (shame on her).

"watched" would be better in that respect, and this is confirmed:

"she listened as he"

About 19,600 results

"she watched as he"

About 167,000 results

Thus, I'd suggest

She watched as David confessed his love to Anna.


She watched /transfixed/mesmerized/in shock/ as David confessed his love to Anna.

the latter to better reflect her own emotional state/experience.

Or, to give some weight to her state, let's do some fronting:

/Transfixed/Mesmerized/In shock/, she watched as David confessed his love to Anna.


/Transfixed/Mesmerized/In shock/, she watched David confessing his love to Anna.

In a romance novel, you might even say:

She beheld as David confessed his love to Anna.

The Ladies' museum. New and improved - Page 6 1832

With indescribable horror she beheld, as he raised his visor, the unforgotten features of the Bathenien Ilderim.



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