Do the words cleaning and tidying translate differently in different English speaking countries? Specifically, would vacuuming always be considered part of tidying AND cleaning?

  • There are certainly individual/familial idiosyncrasies. "Spiff up" would (in the appropriate context) mean "light cleaning", eg. Whether vacuuming is considered part of tidying or cleaning would largely depend on the circumstances. If you need to be specific, be specific. If you want to be colloquial you need to pick some group of people to emulate.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 12, 2016 at 13:59
  • I want to understand if English speakers differentiate those words. They came up in a discussion of international speakers. Jan 12, 2016 at 14:06
  • "Tidying" means whatever it meant to your mother.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:18
  • No need to be offensive dude. That comment doesn't help. Jan 12, 2016 at 14:21
  • I wasn't intending to offend. The terminology your mother used for cleaning is likely what you learned and use. If "cleaning" included vacuuming in her view then it does in yours, etc.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:22

3 Answers 3


Well put it this way. The verb 'to clean' is different to 'to tidy'.

They can overlap in the context of say, 'cleaning/tidying your room' implying that a mess needs to be cleared.

Another contextual situation where they don't overlap would be 'to clean the mud on floor' or to 'tidy the books on the shelf'.

You wouldn't 'tidy the mud on the floor' nor would you 'clean the books on the shelf' (unless the books were really dusty, but then you might use the verb 'to dust')!

Context is important, they can be interchanged but only where it makes sense. Tidy generally implies sorting whereas clean generally implies washing or cleansing.

  • I wouldn't clean the mud on the floor either, I'd clean the mud off the floor.
    – AndyT
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:14
  • Alas, one might desire a mud bath. Jan 12, 2016 at 15:27
  • @AndyT - What if it's a mud-floored hut?
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 13, 2016 at 0:30

So, for me (UK), the two words are quite distinct. Tidying involves put things back in their 'right place' whereas cleaning involves the removal of dust and dirt (often involving liquid 'cleaners').

  • Same notion for me in Canada. For example, a room can be clean, but untidy if you just dumped your clean laundry on the bed to be folded and put away, and the desk is in disarray with open books, toys, etc, but the room was completely vacuumed and dusted yesterday. By the same token, a room where everything is perfectly in place but the carpet is covered in dirt, and my two year old just put muddy handprints all over the walls is tidy but not clean! Jan 12, 2016 at 15:03
  • Same in the US. To tidy is basically to neaten, to put in order. To clean is to remove dirt. You can do one or the other, or both. A complete clean-up would include both. Jan 12, 2016 at 19:36
  • Yes, tidying is rearranging or putting things in order. Cleaning is cleaning.
    – Drew
    Jan 13, 2016 at 4:25

If my wife was leaving for a few hours and she told me to "really clean up the living room" that would imply, in addition to picking up the scattered newspapers and day-old pizza boxes, to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpeting.

However, if we lived in Florida instead of Minnesota, the same command would suggest wet mopping the ceramic tile floor rather than vacuuming. (Of course, whether either got done without her standing there watching me would be a good question. After all, I have lots of questions to answer on Stack Exchange.)

What one does to "clean" is highly dependent on ones situation. Not only are there differences in the physical surfaces to be cleaned, there are also differences in the assumed starting state (is it one layer of pizza boxes or two?) and differences in the expected final outcome (did she really expect me to dust that old vase?).

So terms used for household cleaning, if not voiced with specificity, are highly dependent on the particular situation. About all one can say is that "clean" involves removing dirt/dust (from somewhere), while "tidy" suggests removing old newspapers, etc, and placing any displaced furniture and knick-knacks in their "proper locations" (but whether newspapers are merely stacked on the floor beside the couch or totally removed is highly variable, as is how specific "proper location" is).

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