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I've heard both phrases used but would love to learn what the difference is and if one is more proper than the other.

E.g.

The green paint really made it come [to life/alive].

3
  • They mean two different things. – Hot Licks Sep 12 '18 at 17:27
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    @HotLicks care to elaborate? lol – Davbog Sep 12 '18 at 17:35
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    For people in the United States old enough to have been bombarded by TV commercials during the 1960s, the phrase "come alive" is probably ineradicably associated with a repellent but memorable Pepsi-Cola ad campaign: "Come alive! Come alive! You're in the Pepsi generation!" The jingle was especially awful. – Sven Yargs Sep 12 '18 at 18:16
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In most contexts they're equivalent and interchangeable. But imho come alive is somewhat more likely to be used figuratively, and come to life is more likely to be a literal usage. Thus...

The atmosphere in the cinema came alive when Frankenstein's monster came to life
is far more likely than
The atmosphere in the cinema came to life when Frankenstein's monster came alive

That's 116+93=209 hits in Google Books for the two usages in the first example, and 4+77=81 hits for those in what I consider to be the "less idiomatic" second example.

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