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I have heard beber and tomar used interchangeably as translations for the English "to drink." Is there any difference between the two, or are they exact synonyms when describing drinking a liquid? Are there regional differences in the use of these verbs?

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In Mexico at least I think there is also an informal/slang sense of chupar that I've heard people use for drinking alcohol. –  hippietrail Jan 27 '12 at 14:39
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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I Spain, they are quite different, while "beber" can be used in a transitive or intransitive way, "tomar" can only be used as transitive for that meaning (I know that in America it can be used as a intransitive verb too but it is not used in that way in Spain). So you can say:

Estoy bebiendo.

Estoy bebiendo un zumo.

Estoy tomando un zumo.

Estoy tomando. * (Incorrect in Spain, you need to specify what are you drinking: a name or a pronoun).

They can even used in a pronominal way when they are transitive:

Me estoy bebiendo un zumo.

Me estoy tomando un zumo.

As with "Beber" we can ommit what we are saying it often means that you are drinking alcoholic drinks, but it doesn't always mean that, it depends on the context, but if you use it in an intransitive way, people will likely understand that you're spaking about alcohol.

Si bebes, no conduzcas. (Here the context implies that we're referring to alcoholic drinks)

¿Qué estás bebiendo? (Here we don't know if it's alcoholic or not)

Bebe a menudo. (Probably we're talking about a problem with alcohol.)

So as with "tomar" we say what are we drinking, that confusion is not present.

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In the first paragraph, you mean "tomar can only be used as transitive", don't you? –  MikMik Jan 30 '12 at 7:14
    
When inviting someone, or asking what they want, tomar is very used, as in "¿qué tomas?" or "¿qué van a tomar?" –  MikMik Jan 30 '12 at 7:18
    
@MikMik yeah as transitive (I wrote it wrongly though the explanation was ok) thanks. And of course ¿Qué tomas?/¿Qué van a tomar? are very used ("Qué" is the direct object there so it is used also as a transitive verb) –  Javi Jan 30 '12 at 8:10
    
I know it's transitive. I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I just wanted to add a typical usage. –  MikMik Jan 30 '12 at 10:46
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In Mexico, at least, beber has a connotation of to drink alcoholic beverages, where as tomar is to drink anything (as well as to take, in other contexts).

The same sort phenomenon is observed in English in certain contexts...

Do you drink?

Is clearly meant to mean "Do you consume alcohol?" not "Do you drink anything?"

I have heard beber, or derivatives of it, used to mean non-alcoholic beverages. The "drinks" section of a menu is often called Bebidas, for instance, and may contain soft drinks, coffee, and tea.

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Not totally true. There is a popular phrase that says: "Si tomas, no manejes.". or you could just say "Voy a tomar." or "¿Estás tomado?". Those phrases are referring to alcohol drinks. –  Alfredo Osorio Jan 26 '12 at 22:10
    
@AlfredoO: I didn't mean to say (and don't think I did) that tomar cannot refer to alcohol. Simply that beber usually means alcohol, and tomar is more open-ended. –  Flimzy Jan 28 '12 at 4:28
    
in Mexico****** –  Joze Jan 30 '12 at 14:29
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In Argentina I never heard beber, it was always tomar. I could use the word beber but people would look at me a bit weirdly. (No references here, personal experience from living there)

Also if you wanted to ask someone if they drink alcohol, you would ask

Che boludo, ¿tomas? - Hey dude, do you drink (alcohol)?

When I learned Spanish a long time ago in school, they taught me that beber is more common in Spain but I don't have any references for that.

Random (possibly interesting) side note:

The yogurt I bought in a bag in Argentina is called "yogur bebible" and not "yogur tomable" =P

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@Kage, in Spain we know someone comes from America when s/he says "tomar" instead of "beber" (in any context about drinking ;)

There is also, sometimes, the use of "beber" as "drink alcohol" when the drink is not specified.

"Tomar" is often used as "take", while "beber" is the most common verb used for "drink".

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