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My teacher told me that different religions tend to use different words for "to pray", usually choosing between rezar and orar. Which words are preferred by what religions & in which areas? Are there any other subtle differences between the two? Are there any other ways to express "to pray", perhaps in a religion neutral way, as to avoid offending anyone?

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Usually both words are used as synonyms, but as you mention it depends on the religion.

In Mexico where most people are Roman Catholics both words tend to be used interchangeably, however, non-Catholic Christians tend to make a distinction, using Rezar for "reciting" (usually like reading parts of the Bible or reciting a memorized prayer like the Padre Nuestro), while Orar is usually used for kind of a "free-style" praying (either verbally or mentally, "speaking" with God with the praying person's own words and feelings if you will). While not very common, I've seen verbs like pedir, rogar & suplicar to be used when refering to orar's begging/asking sense.

Overall, as a native Spanish speaker, I think orar is the most neutral of the 2 (due to it's free-style kind of sense), but I guess it depends a lot on the culture.

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During my time in Mexico, orar was most commonly used among protestants for all forms of prayer, whereas suplicar was common among Catholics. I think to some suplicar is seen as a bit more reverent, perhaps? – Flimzy Mar 6 '12 at 1:38
You're correct about the uses you mention, and yes suplicar may come up as more reverent. It's also worth mentioning that spanish varies greatly from place to place (I know this is truth for all of Latin America and Spain), so even in Mexico, its use differs greatly from North to South... – DarkAjax Mar 6 '12 at 14:28
I lived with a missionary family in Venezuela and usually heard "orar." – Rachel Mar 7 '12 at 3:21

I consider “orar” and “rezar” as synonims.

In Spain, “rezar” is much more usual when speaking; “orar” sounds more formal and even solemn.

It turns out that the DRAE introduces a distinction between both terms, defining “orar” as “hacer oración a Dios” and “rezar” as “dirigir oraciones a Dios o a personas santas”. I am amazed of hearing about this major diference for the first time in my life, although I suspect this supposed difference in meaning is obsolete; in any case, it’s vastly ignored by the people. I wonder if it subsists as a religious technicallity, but I doubt it.

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Same in Argentina. "Orar" is a little more solemn, and also a little more general (in the sense of darkajax's answer). The distinction of the DRAE sounds artificial and almost incoherent to me (can someone "dirigir oraciones" without "orar"? come on!) – leonbloy May 30 '12 at 4:25

I think they are almost equivalent. I have the subtle feeling that "rezar" involves a bit more the notion of a being (call it God, a saint, etc) taking part in a spiritual discussion, for example, there is one popular saying "rézale a tu santo", that means: "pray to your saint". In the other hand I have the feeling that "orar" is a bit more general, you can do it creating a mental representation of a spiritual being, or you can just try to be in peace with the world (and with yourself) in the process, or anything else that does not necessarily involve a discussion with someone.

As I said at the beginning, this is just the intuition I have as a native speaker.

share|improve this answer I did a blog post about this very topic!

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¡Bienvenida a Spanish.SE! Links are useful, but with the time they can break the information be unaccesible. You should quote the relevant parts of the link in your answer or the answer will be downvoted or deleted. Please read this on How to answer. ¡Gracias! – JoulSauron May 27 '13 at 12:24

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