Purchase wine, buy beer

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30 years ago, Don Hindle explored the idea of calculating semantic similarity on the basis of predicate-argument relations in text corpora, and in the context of that work, I remember him noting that we tend to purchase wine but buy beer. He didn't have a lot of evidence for that insight, since he was working with a mere six-million-word corpus of Associated Press news stories, in which the available counts were small:

wine beer
purchase 1 0
buy 0 3

So for today's lecture on semantics for ling001, I thought I'd check the counts in one of the larger collections available today, as an example of the weaker types of connotational meaning.

In the 14-billion-word iWeb corpus, the counts are:

wine art diamonds beer popcorn shoes
[purchase] 333 379 191 216 36 380
[buy] 1223 1491 717 1329 202 2250

The square brackets mean that I searched for all the inflected forms of the lemma, e.g. purchase, purchases, purchased, purchasing. The less formal term buy is overall more common in this less-formal set off sources, but the statistical tendency is still strongly there, as shown in the [buy]/[purchase] ratio for some representative words:


  1. Cervantes said,

    October 19, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    I wonder if this isn't related to price. I would expect people might buy cheap wine and purchase expensive shoes. Expensive popcorn and cheap diamonds don't really exist, though . . .

  2. Michael said,

    October 19, 2020 @ 4:04 pm

    @Cervantres: I find the popcorn in movie theaters to be pretty darn expensive, certainly as compared to that which I prepare myself. Maybe not in the range of diamonds, exactly…

  3. David Nash said,

    October 19, 2020 @ 4:29 pm

    My thought is that the correlation is more with how long we expect to hang on to the acquired item. This will correlate with price (@Cervantes) of course. A test would be whether the wine/beer differential holds for individual drinks rather than bottles etc.

  4. Minivet said,

    October 19, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

    While I don't know if there's a standard way to visualize these numbers, I feel like this "relative frequency" with the larger over the smaller is bound to make the differences stand out much more than other possible ways. "Purchase as % of (purchase or buy)", by contrast, ranges from a minimum of 14% (beer) to 21.4% (wine).

  5. AntC said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 12:56 am

    how long we expect to hang on to the acquired item.

    Good point: you might 'invest' in diamonds, art or fine (expensive) wines. Not so much in popcorn or beer or 'vin industriel' for immediate drinking.

  6. Paul said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 7:39 am

    @David, Ant – I doubt this is it. If it was about investment, buy would be more normal. You buy bonds, gold etc.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 7:40 am

    One difference between the two verbs that doesn't have to do (at least directly) with register is ditransitivity. Structures like "Hello sailor. Buy me a drink?" don't typically allow you (or at least they don't in my variety of English …) to swap in "purchase." Assuming the corpus search you did was not restricted to sentences where the verb and direct object were adjacent (in order to allow you to catch things like "buy a beer" or "buy some beer" etc etc) the availability/unavailability of ditransitivity could potentially further affect the data if for some reason it is more common to want to specify the beneficiary indirect-object with some sorts of things bought/purchased than others. Which is a separate question, but an empirical one that could be investigated.

  8. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 8:42 am

    Could it be that people who buy wine, art, and diamonds tend to use more pretentious speech than those who buy beer? Maybe it has more to do with the people than with the context.

  9. Dave Williams said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 9:53 am

    Could it be simpler than any of those, and just that the rhyme of "buy wine" sounds close to the childish "bye-bye" so people shy away from saying that and pick an alternative?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 11:48 am

    « sounds close to the childish "bye-bye" ». I'm 73. I still say "bye-bye" to people. Not to everyone, but to those with whom it feels appropriate. It doesn't feel childish to me, simply informal.

  11. Jim said,

    October 20, 2020 @ 3:58 pm

    Parallel to the price idea above, there is also a "shopping" angle, maybe (linked to price). You just go out and buy a case of beer, but you consider options (you know, where the label looks cool) before purchasing wine.

    I bet you purchase fancy pumps but buy your usual brand of trainers in kind of the same way.

  12. Trogluddite said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    Continuing Jim's line of thought, there may also be a "selling" angle. Do we know what proportion of the corpus was written by purveyors of the commodities in question? One way to encourage us to view their wares as luxurious and/or exclusive would be to use more formal or high-brow language, even where the target demographic is usually more down-to-earth. "Aspirational" language is common in marketing, and sellers may have a vested interest in encouraging the kind of pretension about which Ralph Hickok commented.

  13. Arthur Baker said,

    October 21, 2020 @ 7:50 pm

    If we're talking about beer, I'm with the commenter above named Brewer. Me, I'm just waiting for a thread discussing bread.

  14. Christopher Buckey said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 12:17 am

    For what little it's worth, I've always used the phrase "pick up a bottle of wine" instead of either of the choices in the chart.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 9:33 am

    Google ngram comparisons: of "a" and "an" before "historic", "heroic", "Hawaiian", and "hilarious" show similar correlations.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 9:46 am

    Jim: I believe there are plenty of people in the world—mostly teenage boys and young men—who spend more their everyday gym shoes than their dress shoes.

    Dave Williams: Your "simpler" theory looks more complicated to me. The original suggestion is that people think "purchase" has appropriate connotations for expensive things and "buy" has appropriate connotations for cheap things. Your suggestion is not only that "bye-bye" has inappropriate connotations for adult use but also that "buy wine" is so similar to "bye-bye" that it brings up those connotations. Also, your suggestion doesn't help with "buy diamonds" and "buy art".

    (Sorry about the extra colon in my previous comment.)

  17. Jim Drew said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 3:52 pm

    Jerry: I considered that, but I think those groups also "buy" rather than "purchase", and maybe don't "shop" in the way other products are dealt with. The drive is different there, and I don't know quite how to characterize it.

  18. Viseguy said,

    October 22, 2020 @ 8:44 pm

    I don't "purchase" the idea that the verb is driven by the object. I think it's driven by register, and all that drives changes in register. No data to support this, just MHO.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 23, 2020 @ 7:45 am

    I am inclined to go along with Viseguy here. My initial suspicion was that I would not use "purchase" at all, other than in set phrases such as "hire-purchase", but knowing that one's own beliefs are often orthogonal to the facts, I searched my outgoing mails to see how many times I had used "purchase" (or a word with "purchase" as a proper sub-set) over the last four years. The answer was 250 times, but what leapt out were the following :
    1) Not infrequently, the use was within a proposed emendation, where I was proposing that "purchase" be replaced by "buy" (modulo inflection, tense, etc).
    2) All other instances were in the past tense, where I was reporting to a supplier or intermediary (such as Amazon) that I had a query concerning something I had "purchased".

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