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The dictionary lists испугать and напугать (and one gives пугнуть) for the perfectives of пугать. Is there any difference in meaning? Is one more frequent than the other(s)?

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Испугать and напугать are synonyms. They are mostly interchangeable. The difference if exists is very subtle.

Roughly,

напугать = to make shocked

испугать = to make concerned

One difference is when using the words with reflexives. It is possible to испугаться за (for) something but not напугаться за (for) something:

Когда сына призвали в армию, я испугался за его жизнь = When my son was conscripted to the military, I became concerned for his life.

Using напугался would be incorrect here.

More subtle difference is that напугать can more often than испугать be used sarcastically in the sense "to make shocked".

Когда я его брал на работу, его уровень знаний меня напугал. = When I was considering him for a position, his level of knowledge shocked me.

This means the knowledge was either very good or very bad. Conversely испугать is more used to mean "to make concerned":

Когда я его брал на работу, его уровень знаний меня испугал. = When I was considering him for a position, his level of knowledge made me concerned.

This means that I possibly have serious questions on where he got all this knowledge (may be he is a foreign spy?) or may be I became concerned for the education system that makes such bad graduates.

Пугнуть has a different meaning, it means making a gesture to frighten somebody or (by implication) any other short-term action with that purpose.


By the way, you can infer the meaning from the very prefixes themselves.

Prefix на- means "to do plenty, a lot of something", as in words настрогать, наложить, напилить, наделать, навонять, напустить.

So напугать means "to frighten a lot".

Prefix ис- means "to do something completely, make permanent change to its logical end, to the final target, reaching the aim", as in words изрубить, испепелить, измотать, изжить, исправить, исписать, изрисовать (compare English words extinguish, exterminate, explain with Latin prefix ex- which is cognate with Russian iz-/is-).

So the meaning of the word испугать means "to frighten completely", "to frighten so much that the object changes their behavior, becomes concerned, more cautious".

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  • Great! So if I understand correctly, in one usage напугал can imply that one is taken aback (e.g. by his knowledge or lack thereof); and in another испугал means that one is marginally alarmed, given cause for concern because something raises a red flag? – CocoPop Feb 3 '15 at 15:43
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    @Anixx There is also difference in reflexives in their main usage: there MAY be a case one says "Я напугался" (though, "испугался" is orders of magnitude more frequent), but I doubt there is a native speaker who thinks "Я напугался грозы" is correct. This hints at the interpretation that maybe "напугать" is the direct action at the person while "испугать" is more of an indirect action that makes person feel fear on their own. – Shady_arc Feb 3 '15 at 16:14
  • Prefixes' meaning is like handwaving here, I think. "На" is a general-purpose prefix without any fixed meaning. It hardly has "a lot" meaning in "налить", "написать" or "назвать", even less in "настроить", "наклонить" or "наре́зать". I do not feel the slightest shade of "plentiness" in "напугать". – Shady_arc Feb 3 '15 at 19:07
  • In your second example you write уровень знаний. Not being a native speaker, I would have written уровень знания. Is that wrong, and if so what is the difference between them? In English, "knowledge" doesn't come in plural form. – KCd Feb 13 '15 at 14:01
  • @KCd yes, usually you would use the plural. I suggest you posting a new question. – Anixx Feb 13 '15 at 16:32
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Difference is in time/duration of frightening effect.

Напугать - brief sudden effect. E.g: меня напугала ваша собака

Испугать - kind of an instant effect. E.g. меня испугала перспектива остаться без работы

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    ["kinda" is kinda silly - we only see it in cartoons and very informal, personal comments on blogs, social media, etc. usually from teenagers. Just a little advice :)] – CocoPop Feb 3 '15 at 17:06
  • Sure, I know :) - the same as CocoPop vs. chocolate – Barmaley Feb 4 '15 at 9:14
  • Coco is my dog and I'm her Pop :) – CocoPop Feb 5 '15 at 1:43
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I'd like to take a more historical approach to explain it. The real difference is in the fact that one word is more colloquial, day-to-day, and the other is higher register: the word испугать features the Old Church Slavonic prefix ис- and therefore has a higher register connotation.

The answers people gave here are pretty correct to some extent, however what they're doing is trying to generalize random consequences of the real cause: low vs. high register.

Just like an example above: Меня напугала собака -- a dog scaring someone in the streets, is a more down-to-the-earth situation, so the low register East Slavic на- is used.

Меня испугала перспектива провала -- "the prospect of failure scared me" -- this situation is more metaphorical, more abstract, therefore the higher-register ис- from Church Slavonic is used. A dog can испугать as well, but that would mean, in this context, something more serious, than the less serious напугать (more serious vs. less serious stems from high vs. low register as well)

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  • That's an effective approach and an excellent answer. Thank you :) – CocoPop Feb 9 '15 at 18:16
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It's often useful to do a Google image search to help with differences between closely related verbs. Doing so won't help with grammar, but for meaning it's helpful. Search for напугать и испугать and see...

на also means up, onto, to,—so one could say напугать means "putting a sudden fear on someone"—it's not correct in grammar, but so what :)

настроить can mean to build a lot or a certain amount of X, but one can also think of it as building (tuning, etc) something up (onto, to) a certain point. To tune a TV to a channel, a person against (towards a state that is against) me etc.

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