"take someone by surprise" is defined as "surprise someone". But then why would you use one over the other?

1a. "She bolted into the room and surprised them" vs.

1b. "She bolted into the room and took them by surprise"

2a. "The extent of the outbreak in South Korea has taken many by surprise -- mainly because the virus has not been shown to spread easily between humans" vs.

2b. "The extent of the outbreak in South Korea surprised them -- mainly because the virus has not been shown to spread easily between humans "

In other words, what is the additional effect that the phrase "take someone by surprise" has that the construction "surprise someone" lacks? I feel "take someone by surprise" sounds more official, but I might be wrong.

  • no difference in meaning. "took by surprise" is perhaps a little more formal and pretentious; it's also perhaps a little more likely to be negative or stronger. your sense "more officious" is perfectly correct.
    – Fattie
    Jun 3, 2015 at 16:13

1 Answer 1


If you surprise someone, it usually connotes a mild astonishment. A lot of times, the implication is that they are happy by what you did. Though it could just as easily be an unexpected attack.

My parents surprised me by visiting me at school today.

If you take someone by surprise, the astonishment is stronger. Also, this generally means something negative for the other party. The implication is that you attack/capture them or that they are unprepared for whatever you did.

The attack took the troops by surprise, but was no more successful than any of the previous offensives.

The question took Rebecca by surprise, and she was ashamed to admit the truth.


  • 1
    Tushar, maybe edit your answer to make it clearer to the OP that being taken by surprise tends to be something negative. It's there in your answer, but a NNS might miss it. I seem to have the privilege to do this myself now, but it feels uncouth if I can ask you instead.
    – David Pugh
    Jun 3, 2015 at 14:19
  • @DavidPugh: Good to know you've editing previleges now. You're welcome to edit my posts anytime you want.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 3, 2015 at 14:30
  • Thank you for the vote of confidence, but I'm very diffident in this area. What other people think of as editing, I don't always hold with. I need a clearer sense of the standard.
    – David Pugh
    Jun 3, 2015 at 20:04

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