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Is there a significant difference between "sobre" and "acerca de", when the intent is to describe the topic of something?

Where is "acerca de" a better choice than "sobre", and vice-versa?

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They are exact synonyms (as RAE says), you can use any of them to replace the other because there's no difference in meaning or grammar.

sobre (RAE definition)

  1. prep. Encima de.

  2. prep. acerca de.

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Wouldn't using "acerca de" be a bit more precise in some situations, because "sobre" has more different meanings and thus a greater chance of ambiguity? – Eli Bendersky Dec 18 '11 at 3:30
@EliBendersky I think there isn't much ambiguity about "sobre". The verbs which go with "sobre" in these meaning (ir sobre, tratar sobre, ser sobre...) makes it very clear because of the context. Ehen you hear something like "El libro va sobre un coche" people would understand "the book is about a car" instead of "the book travels on a car". I think we would change the verb to avoid ambiguity rather than changing the preposition (Es libro viaja sobre un coche). – Juanillo Dec 18 '11 at 16:25
Interesting, thanks – Eli Bendersky Dec 19 '11 at 5:49
Homework: "Espero que sobre tiempo para enviar el sobre que está sobre la mesa." Can you use acerca de in the previous sentence? – César Dec 20 '11 at 4:32
@César You can use "sobre" and "acerca de" when the sentence requires that meaning. Of course you can't use "acerca de" in that sentence because "sobre" means there: to be left/on/envelope – Juanillo Dec 22 '11 at 15:33

The word "sobre" can become, has the potential, to be a synonym of "acerca de"; when used as a preposition.

Although "sobre" can be used as a synonym; it is context dependent and can have multiple meanings. It is true that "acerca de" is a bit more precise, there is just one way of using it, only one meaning.

Examples of this ambiguity:

synonym of "acerca de"

El libro habla sobre la historia de Francia.  
The book talks about the history of France.

locative preposition

Deje el libro sobre la mesa. 
I left the book over the table.

dominance, superiority

Estoy enojado por lo sucedido, pero sobre todo, por tu falta de respeto.
I am upset for what happened, but above all, for your lack of respect.

Those examples are for "sobre" used as a preposition, actually it can be used on three different forms:

  1. preposition - see above
  2. noun - "sobre" means "envelope"
  3. composite element - "sobresaltar" means "suddenly scare"

That is why it is context dependent.

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