ENGLISCH/713: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (106) Room or Space (SB)


106. What is the difference between "room" and "space"

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook,

...In my dictionary I found space or room used alternatively for the expression I wanted to translate into English, but I wonder if there is a difference in using it. For example I think it is right to say "I make room" on my shelf for some new books. But you couldn't say "I make space", could you? Please help and thank you very much in advance...

Lisa I. (Hungary)


Dear Ms I.

Before I start answering your questions and in case you are wondering, just a short note about the commas you used after the opening and closing greetings as in American punctuation. British people generally use fewer commas than Americans do, that's why I leave them out even in more formal letters ("Dear Sir or Madam"; "Yours sincerely"). So, it's not wrong to use a comma here, but you don't have to.

Now, back to your question: "room" and "space" both have common and separate meanings and uses. If you take the following dialog for example, room and space can be reversed:

She: "I really don't think there is enough space for everyone to sit here." He: "Well, if we all sit closely together then I'm sure there'll be room for us all."

In both examples "room" or "space" is used to describe capaciousness or the ability to accommodate contents or persons. "Room" in this context means a place or gap that is or might be occupied by someone or something (it takes up too much room/space; there is plenty of room/space; we have no room/space here for idlers).

Room and space can also both be used in the abstract sense, as opportunity or scope and followed by "for" or "to and the infinitive" (room/space to improve things; no room/space for dispute):

She: "I just haven't got enough room in my life for another friend." He: "Oh, that's a pity, I've got space for anyone interesting."

"Space" is also used in this context:

She: I really don't mind when my husband goes on business for a few days. I really need my own space. He: Yes, I like doing things by myself. But anyway, my family don't always want to do what I want to do. So, I need my own space too.

Moreover, you use "space" if you are talking about a large unoccupied region (the wide open spaces = outer space) or an interval of time (in the space of an hour). Here, one couldn't use "room" instead.

"Room" means a separate section inside a building. It's the part of a building that is enclosed by walls or partitions, floor and ceiling. ("My new house has six rooms.")

However "space" has a slightly different meaning of an area empty or available either inside or outside. For example:

He: "My office has a lot of space. So we won't feel too crowded. And we all will be able to work in peace." She: "Oh, you're so lucky. My office is so small and cramped, no room to swing a cat. I think I'll have to go and find some space in the park to get some peace and quiet".

"No/not room to swing a cat" is an idiom describing very confined space. "Space" can also mean a small or limited gap or area as in:

He: "Look, there is a small space under the door." She: Do you think, there is enough room for a mouse to get through." He: "I hope not!"

Interesting to know, that you "make room" (for someone or something on your bookshelf) but "clear a space" (for a person or thing), usually by removal of others. So, you were right, you couldn't possibly say "I make space", but you can have or clear some space on your shelf.

Well, I hope you've got enough space to learn all these uses of room and space.

Mrs Gobbledygook

11 January 2007