I would like to know if there is any difference between mar and spoil. It does not seem to have any difference, but I would like to know which one is more used, which is more formal and informal, and if there is any connotation in each one.

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  • 4
    Did you look the words up in a dictionary? They are quite distinct. – phoog Feb 27 '16 at 16:18
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    @phoog: I'm not going to consult a dictionary right now, since I've got by for many decades assuming I know both these words perfectly well. But I don't think I could succinctly summarise any commonly-acknowledged semantic distinction. And it would seem likely to me that each definition would cite the other word as a "synonym". – FumbleFingers Feb 27 '16 at 16:30
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    @FumbleFingers We don't have any context. Can we tell the difference without any context? The OP is asking for dictionary service here. – user140086 Feb 27 '16 at 16:32
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    You can spoil your appetite (by eating sugar before a meal); you can spoil someone's enjoyment (by being a PIA); food can spoil. Then there is spoiler, which has an aerodynamic meaning and a political meaning. You can mar the surface of a table (by spilling paint remover on it); you can mar the occasion (by being a PIA); a view can be marred (by a billboard). – ab2 Feb 27 '16 at 16:54
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    @FumbleFingers if you fail to refrigerate milk, it might mar. – phoog Feb 27 '16 at 17:07

It is a question of degree. Dictionary.com defines mar


to damage or spoil to a certain extent.

Not all dictionaries bring out this distinction.

We might say

Although rain marred the picnic, the food was kept dry, umbrellas were distributed and everybody had a good time.

or we might say

Rain spoiled the picnic, the food became soggy, everybody was wet though and nobody enjoyed it at all.

In the first case the picnic was less pleasant because of the rain, but in the second case the picnic was ruined by it.

Aunty Helen's constant moaning marred the holiday, but we didn't let it spoil it.

We would have much preferred it if Aunty Helen hadn't moaned, but we managed to enjoy the holiday in spite of it.

  • We understand they are synonymous. But there are idiomatic usages. The OP didn't provide any context where (s)he feel confused. I don't think the two verbs are interchangeable in certain context and the OP should let us know the context where (s)he finds it difficult to tell the difference. – user140086 Feb 27 '16 at 16:46

When you mar something you usually leave a mark. That mark is what spoils it. On the other hand something can be spoiled with nary a mark upon it. Milk can spoil in just this way letting you ruin a whole bowl of cereal because you couldn't see that it was spoiled.

Mar is about how it was ruined. Spoil is about that it was ruined. When people use the words metaphorically this distinction can become muddled and less than obvious.

Here's the "dictionary service":


verb (used with object), marred, marring.

  1. to damage or spoil to a certain extent; render less perfect, attractive, useful, etc.; impair or spoil:

That billboard mars the view. The holiday was marred by bad weather.

  1. to disfigure, deface, or scar:

The scratch marred the table.




verb (used with object), spoiled or spoilt, spoiling.

  1. to damage severely or harm (something), especially with reference to its excellence, value, usefulness, etc.:

The water stain spoiled the painting. Drought spoiled the corn crop.

  1. to diminish or impair the quality of; affect detrimentally:

Bad weather spoiled their vacation.

  1. to impair, damage, or harm the character or nature of (someone) by unwise treatment, excessive indulgence, etc.:

to spoil a child by pampering him.

  1. Archaic. to strip (persons, places, etc.) of goods, valuables, etc.; plunder; pillage; despoil.

  2. Archaic. to take or seize by force.

verb (used without object), spoiled or spoilt, spoiling.

  1. to become bad, or unfit for use, as food or other perishable substances; become tainted or putrid:

Milk spoils if not refrigerated.

  1. to plunder, pillage, or rob.


  1. Often, spoils. booty, loot, or plunder taken in war or robbery.

  2. the act of plundering.

  3. an object of plundering.

  4. Usually, spoils.

the emoluments and advantages of public office viewed as won by a victorious political party:

the spoils of office.

prizes won or treasures accumulated:

a child's spoils brought home from a party.

  1. waste material, as that which is cast up in mining, excavating, quarrying, etc.

  2. an imperfectly made object, damaged during the manufacturing process.


  1. be spoiling for, Informal. to be very eager for; be desirous of:

It was obvious that he was spoiling for a fight.


Hope I added a little bit more than what you would get from reading a dictionary.

  • 2
    It should be noted that mar generally implies something that is mechanically superficial -- it does not cut deeply into the thing being injured, whereas spoil implies that the thing is ruined through and through. Of course marring the finish of a piece of fine furniture may substantially reduce it's value, but it will usually not seriously affect it's utility. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '16 at 19:07
  • An antique may be marred by scratches or gouges, but you will spoil the antique only if you sand it down and refinish it. – ab2 Feb 27 '16 at 19:08
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    The debate you two are having illustrates exactly why the distinction can be unclear. My favorite idioms that play with this issue are "Beauty is only skin deep" and its rejoinder "But ugly goes right to the bone". – candied_orange Feb 27 '16 at 22:10

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984), which treats both words (along with harm, hurt, damage, and impair) under the general category injure, provides a useful description of how the two words differ in general use:

Mar implies the infliction of an injury that disfigures or maims or involves the loss of a thing's perfection or well-being [examples omitted]. Spoil [cross reference omitted] carries a stronger implication of ruin than mar and suggests the operation of something that not only induces the impairment o strength, vigor or value but also brings about their inevitable destruction [examples omitted].

Note that spoil is discussed here in the narrow sense of "damage beyond repair"—not in its other senses of "decay or rot" (like food that has been kept in storage too long) or "overindulge" (like a child or pet whose whims are treated with excessive deference).


The difference is that whereas something marred is usually still serviceable (albeit less than perfect), something spoiled is usually damaged/changed so as to be unserviceable.

Mar - to impair, in somewhat weakened sense; to detract from the perfection or completeness of (a thing).

Spoil - to affect injuriously or detrimentally, esp. to an irretrievable extent; to destroy or prevent the full exercise, development, or enjoyment of. (OED)

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