What is the difference between gift and present?

  • A gift is a present that no one wants. Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 9:04

6 Answers 6


One difference is that we use birthday gift or birthday present but we only use free gift and not free present.

  • 3
    Maybe it has to do with the origin of the word. While a gift is simply given, a present is presented.
    – malach
    Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 8:52
  • 3
    -1 This claim that "present is more special than gift" is complete nonsense. I'm not convinced it's meaningful to "rank" these words, but the gift of life is probably more "special" than any present you'll ever receive. Commented Aug 19, 2012 at 0:35
  • 1
    Before it was edited, the answer had the following description: They are both free, but present is more special than gift and suggests a nontrivial relationship between the giver and the receiver. Which I kind of liked, especially the reference to "non-trivial relationship", because it's true. Shops, beauticians, perfumeries give away free samples, which are often called "gifts".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 12:12
  • In my understanding they are distinct. A gift is something someone wants you to have, but a present has the additional property that the giver has some idea that it is wanted by the receiver. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 23:29
  • @JoshuaOlson Why would someone give you something that he/she doesn't think that you want? Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 21:37

In many contexts, there is not much difference. I'd say "present" is mostly used in a practical context, when you hand someone a present on his birthday; "gift" is rather used in an abstract or formal context, as in the gift of telepathy [by supernatural powers], or a gift of land to the church. But this distinction is not at all strict; in many practical situations, they are used interchangeably. I think "present" is the more limited word. When it is used in a formal context, it is often with mild irony: "the Duchy of Burgundy was a handsome present for Maximilian to receive from a potential bride, so the Habsburgs did not need much time to decide on the target of their bribes".


A radio show titled "Says You!" had a piece on "what's the difference?" The answer to gift vs present was that one gives a present in person, but sends a gift. The show itself seems well researched, with the occasional listener letter sent in and read as a correction.


Lane Greene (Writing with Style: The Economist Style Guide, 2023) claims that present is the language of everyday speech, while gift is the language of lawyers or bureaucrats. So, prefer present to gift:

Short words are more than short; they are clear. The stock of short, old words in the English language has a special role in a good English sentence .... Use the language of everyday speech, not that of lawyers or bureaucrats. So prefer let to permit, people to persons, buy to purchase, colleague to peer, present to gift, rich to wealthy, show to demonstrate, break to violate. Pomposity and long-windedness tend to obscure meaning, or reveal the lack of it. Strip them away in favour of plain words.

  • 2
    I'm actually a bit puzzled by and don't quite agree with this prescription (but thought I'd add it to the discussion anyway): (1) Present is longer than gift (so contradicting the earlier prescription to prefer short words). (2) While lawyers and bureaucrats do probably prefer gift to present, I believe gift is also quite frequently used in everyday speech.
    – user182601
    Commented Apr 27 at 4:09
  • While it may be useful, to those who come to this page, to know that somebody, in a published work, made this recommendation, if it is not something you endorse, you should make that clear within your answer. As you say, while it is true that gift is more likely to be used than present in legal contexts (e.g. when a question arises whether something was gifted or sold or leased . . .), the recommendation to avoid gift in everyday contexts seems altogether arbitrary.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 28 at 15:56

I once heard that a present was something the giver chose because it was something he/she wanted the person they were presenting it to to have; while a gift was something that was given because it was something that the giftee has expressed a desire to have.

  • And how does this distinction fit with the usage of, say, "the gift of healing" or any other similar expression?
    – Paola
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 0:03
  • This answer doesn't account for the definition of present used in the question.
    – Zairja
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 19:11

They are both free, but present is more official than gift.

  • Really? I would tend to say the opposite, and even that wouldn't be a foolproof or complete delineation between the two.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 18:19

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