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They mean various things and are used in manifold contexts – from fiddling with one's food, or a rubber band because nervousness, or a switch – to using without permission and messing up one's camera, toying with the idea of doing something, or tinkering with,experimenting with, arranging, trying something various ways to see what works best or better figure out how it works, - and having an affair with or making out with someone in a car etc and so on.

In many cases I had the idea that only, for instance, play/ mess with or play/mess around with works, but I've been going through various dictionaries - Webster,Oxford, Cambridge, the Freedictionary, Longman, Collins etc – and there seems to be no difference, with them being used interchangeably and around not changing anything.


Specific examples:

Macmillan lists "fool around" as "fool around or fool about [British] or fool with" [one under the other];

Webster lists "fool around with" and "fool with" with common definitions and examples in some cases:

Cambridge lists fool around with as "fool (around) with" - around being in parentheses, which would suggest it's optional, for all intents and purposes.


To give you a few examples [every two sentences have virtually the same meaning, though one uses "around" and the other doesn't) :

  • I can play around with the pictures to make them more eye-catching.
  • Play with the design onscreen, moving text and pictures until you get a pleasing arrangement.
  • The supervisor played around with our work schedules this week.
  • We're playing with a few different solutions to the problem.
  • I spent the evening playing around on the piano/computer/Internet.
  • Play around with the ingredients if you like.
  • He played with many different hairstyles before choosing one he liked.
  • I'm not really a painter; I just like to play around with paints.
  • I've been playing with designs for my company logo— which one do you like best?
  • Hey, don't mess with the thermostat—it needs to stay at 65 degrees.
  • Hey, don't mess around with the thermostat—it needs to stay at 65 degrees. [ACTUALLY the very same sentence!]
  • Don't mess with the camera.
  • Who’s been messing around with my camera?
  • We played around with the idea for a while but eventually realized that it just wouldn't work.
  • After university, I played with the idea of teaching English in China.
  • I was just playing with you when I said I was angry.
  • You’re playing around with me. Leave me alone.
  • Don't mess around with the ashtray. You'll break it
  • Stop playing with the light switch!
  • I wish you wouldn't play around with that - you'll break it.
  • Please don't play with that crystal vase.
  • Did she really ask you about me, or are you fucking around with me?
  • Come on, don't fuck with me. Did Tina really ask about me?

My question is does "around" change the meaning of the construction in any way that I should keep in mind? Since dictionaries aren't always completely accurate and reflective of common usage, do you make a distinction between fool/mess/play with and fool/mess/ play around with in you daily speech?

  • I tweaked some of your bold (or not bold) text for consistency. (I think this is a great question which I don't have an immediate answer for.) – Jason Bassford Jul 26 '18 at 6:19
  • "Does around ... alter the meaning in any way?" -- Yes. Please show background research effort. – Kris Jul 26 '18 at 6:39
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    @Kris did you see the number of Dictionaries I consulted before posting this? Please read the question again, I didn't just pluck it out of the air. Dictionaries don't distinguish between them as far as I could see, with some (like Cambridge) even listing it as " play (around) with something" - suggesting "around" is clearly optional. I'm asking the question looking for practical, day-to-day usage to see if it backs up or goes against these dictionary observations – Daniel Jul 26 '18 at 7:07
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    Webster,Oxford, Cambridge, the Freedictionary, Longman, Collins. The second line of the second paragraph – Daniel Jul 26 '18 at 7:13
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    (You may also want to explicitly exclude cases where there is an obvious, clear difference in meaning, such as mess with someone, meaning ‘play a joke on or be provocative towards someone’, and mess around with someone, meaning ‘engaging in light sexual activity with someone’. Those are highly idiomatic meanings and I’m guessing not really what you’re asking about here. Though I do see you have an example of mess with [person] which looks like it’s supposed to refer to the sexual meaning… sounds odd to me, but is perhaps normal in some lects?) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 26 '18 at 10:03
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I hadn't been able to think of any difference, even subtle, at first, but something has finally occurred to me.

Without around:

Go away. I don't want you to play with me.

This is often taken in a literal sense. One person is requesting that the other doesn't take part in some kind of play activity.

From Cambridge:

When you play, especially as a child, you spend time doing an enjoyable and/or entertaining activity:
The children spent the afternoon playing with their new toys.
My daughter used to play with the kids next door.

But when we add around:

Don't play around with me.

This is normally taken in a more figurative sense.

One figurative meaning could be one person is asking the other not to interfere with them or lead them on about something.

And a different figurative meaning from Cambridge:

to try out different methods or different things, before deciding which one to choose:
We've been playing around with ideas for a new TV show.
Why don't you play around with the different fonts on the computer and see which one you want to use?

While a literal or figurative meaning can be expressed either with or without around, it seems to me as if something is more commonly figurative if around is used.

In other words, around seems to be a cue for something figurative. While it's true that a sentence without it can still be taken figuratively, the reverse is not so likely. It's more difficult to take something in a literal sense when around is included.


Here are illustrations of things that sound normal or unusual, indicating that they can't actually be interchanged in every case. Note that while some of these follow a literal versus figurative distinction, others don't—so there's obviously more going on than just that.

Normal: Play with me.
Unusual: Play around with me.

Normal: Don't mess with me.
Unusual: Don't mess around with me.

Normal: Do you want to fool around with me?
Unusual: Do you want to fool with me?

And there are also some contexts in which meanings are completely different:

I've been messing around with this spreadsheet. (I've been working on it.)
I've been messing with this spreadsheet. (I've been vandalizing it.)


So, I would say that using around changes the meaning of a sentence in many more cases than it doesn't. Whether it's to put it in a more definite figurative light, to simply make it awkward (or to prevent it from being awkward), or to change the meaning altogether.

  • this is a really great answer! I've particularly liked (and noticed, but couldn't put it into words) the difference in nuance between mess with and mess around with, with "mess with" constantly carrying more negative undertones than "mess around with" (from all the examples I've been going through)- like tampering with or sabotaging something, messing it up on purpose. Maybe if you take away the "around", it suggests something is done in a more direct - and deliberate- way (which sometimes might amount to malicious intent) , while if you leave the "away" there, it sort of makes it sound more – Daniel Jul 26 '18 at 14:27
  • clueless, like you don't know what to do- and when you're looking to interfere with something and purposely damage it, you must already have something in mind, you need to know what to do- and "around" doesn't suggest that, but rather the opposite, if anything. – Daniel Jul 26 '18 at 14:33
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I would suggest that "around" is just an adverb that can be used optionally, and it does change the meaning, but only slightly. It enhances (emphasizes) the (colloquial usage) nature of the verbs chosen to suggest "thoroughly", "comprehensively", "continually", or "from every angle/direction". However, the difference is barely noticeable because the verbs themselves suggest a random/haphazard/continuous/sloppy approach to the informal meaning of the activity.

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/around

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/colloquial

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