Ask a Teacher: Are You Laughing or Smiling?

    05 April, 2019

    Today on Ask a Teacher, we answer an email from a reader.

    He writes:

    Question: I would like to know the difference between the verbs laugh and smile. They look like the same, but I am not sure how to use them. Could you help me? - Vicente


    Hello, Vicente! Yes, I can help. The verbs "laugh" and "smile" both describe what happens when people are happy. Both words can also be used as nouns.

    In the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor, Alleen and Don L. F. Nilsen say one difference between smiling and laughing is that laughing is a social event. People are more likely to smile when alone instead of laughing.

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    As a verb, laugh means "to smile while you are making a sound from your throat." When writing, Americans often use the words "ha ha" to express this sound.

    Now, let's listen to an example of how to use "laugh" as a verb.

    I laughed at the comedian on television.

    The English language has two noun forms for the word "laugh." Both mean the action or sound of laughing. One is "laugh," which is a count noun. You can make it plural if you wish. For example:

    We had a lot of laughs at the cookout yesterday.

    Then there is another, noncount noun "laughter," as in this sentence: The crowd broke out in waves of laughter.


    Now, we turn to the second part of Vicente's question. To smile means "to turn up the corners of your mouth silently."

    Nilsen and Nilsen write, "Smiles are more likely to express feelings of satisfaction or good will, while laughter comes from surprise." We laugh when something unexpected happens.

    A smile is "an expression on your face that makes the corners of your mouth turn up and that shows happiness."

    Expressions and songs

    There is an old saying in English, laughter is contagious. It means that one person laughing can make others start laughing. You also may have heard the saying laughter is the best medicine. That means laughing can make the person doing it feel better.

    We also have many expressions about smiles. Someone who is very happy is all smiles. You can give someone a smile and make them feel better. But laughing at someone can make that person feel bad in most cases.

    There are many songs about smiles. Nat King Cole's "Smile" tells us to smile when we are sad:

    "Smile though your heart is aching

    Smile even though it's breaking..."

    When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by

    And there are songs about laughter, as in Neil Sadaka's "Laughter in the Rain"

    Oh, I hear laughter in the rain,

    Walking hand in hand with the one I love

    Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside

    And that's Ask a Teacher.

    I'm Jill Robbins.

    Jill Robbins wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

    What makes you smile? What makes you laugh? Write to us in the Comments Section.


    Words in This Story

    throat – n. the passageway leading to the back of the mouth

    comedian – n. someone who makes other people laugh; funnyman

    plural – adj. more than one in number

    goodwill – n. friendly or helpful feelings

    contagious – adj. able to be passed from one person or animal to another by touching