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How to determine whether to use значить or означать?

For example are both of the following variants correct or should one prefer one over the other?

Что значит этот знак?
Что означает этот знак?

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  • The questions as asked are technically correct, but they do not feel right (режут слух) because the same root is repeated twice in a very short sentence. Unfortunately I can't think off the top of my head how to say it better. It would depend on a very specific usage. If you could describe more precisely what you were looking it when you wanted to ask the question, perhaps I can come up with a better version. Also note that there is another verb you could have used - обозначать that is described here: otvet.mail.ru/question/23720766
    – Leonid
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 4:20
  • >"Unfortunately I can't think off the top of my head how to say it better.". Replacing "знак" with "символ" can help with that. Also, when you talk about symbols/marks/signs all three words seem to be OK. Well, one slightly different of the "обозначает" is "помечает" (marks).
    – Ark-kun
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 9:14

1 Answer 1

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In your example both can be used.

They are indeed quite close in meaning. However, mind the following:

  • "означать" cannot be used to express "to be important": we only ever use "Это много для меня значит" = "It means a lot to me"
  • "означать" is not used in "вот что значит": Вот что значит настоящая любовь! ~ "That's what true love is!" or something like that. It shows how special, important something is (as an explanation for what is happening).

Also, they are somewhat unequal in how they are used in their meaning "to be tantamount to" ("Defeat means death"). Though, they are both used in this meaning, so this may indeed be just a matter of style or usage with nouns/verbal phrases ("Пессимизм означает крушение всех иллюзий."/"Противиться року — значит противиться самому себе").

I personally do not like how "означать" sounds with infinitives, i.e. "X means to see only what you want to" vs "Y means true happiness"

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  • Would you say they are (in order) like "means" to "literally means"?
    – Leonid
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 4:14
  • @Shady_arc : Excellent explanation. My only remaining question is where does обозначать fit into all this?
    – CocoPop
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 13:21
  • Is обозначать the same as означать? Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 16:48
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    @CocoPop "обозначать" is to denote; designate; mark; specify; stand; signify; denominate; define; note; tab; signpost; refer to; represent....
    – Ark-kun
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 9:07

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