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What is the difference between "acostarse" and "recostarse" when it means "to lie down on a surface"?

DLE has the following definitions:

acostarse

  1. tr. Echar o tender a alguien para que duerma o descanse, especialmente en la cama. U. t. c. prnl.

recostarse

  1. tr. Dicho de quien está de pie o sentado: Reclinar la parte superior del cuerpo. U. t. c. prnl.

  2. prnl. Acostarse durante un breve período de tiempo.

I have already heard "acostar" used in contexts other than sleeping and relaxing, so I'm not sure which verb to choose. What verb would be possible/usual in the following sentences?

  • Me voy a acostar/recostar en el sofá por diez minutos para relajarme.

  • Por favor, acuéstese/recuéstese en esa camilla para que yo te pueda examinar.

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    I'm so glad you quoted the definitions. Now you just need one more puzzle piece, for a well posed question -- a link to each definition you quote. – aparente001 Jan 26 at 16:22
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"acostar/se" is usually associated with the purpose of sleeping or lying down for some time. We generally use it with nouns like "cama" and "camilla". If used with "sofá", the idea is that it will serve the purpose of sleeping or at least taking a nap.

"recostarse" is usually associated with the purpose of relaxing for a short time, although the person may end up falling asleep.

The difference between both words is not strict and their usage is subject to personal preference and, as I mentioned above, to the purpose the person has on mind (resting for a long or a short time). That said, I'd use the sentences proposed as follows:

  • Me voy a recostar en el sofá por diez minutos para relajarme. (Intention: short rest)

  • Por favor acuéstese en la camilla para que lo pueda examinar. (Although "recostarse" is also possible, my feeling is that the lexical form of "camilla" -- close to "cama" -- somehow induces the use of "acostar/se")

Note: Notice that "acuéstese" refers to a person treated as "usted" while in the second part of the sentence the person is treated as "tú". I revised the sentence to solve this contradiction.

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  • Thanks for correcting the second sentence, it was a mistake. From your answer, I assume that I would I say "Nos recostamos en el sofá y vimos una buena película", "Nos recostamos en el césped para ver la puesta del sol" (instead of "nos acostamos") and "Recuéstese en la mesa para que yo lo pueda examinar" (instead of "acuéstese"), as there is no intention of sleeping and the subject is not lying down on a bed/stretcher? – Alan Evangelista Jan 26 at 14:22
  • "recostarse en una mesa" would be a rather unconventional practice. – Gustavson Jan 26 at 14:23
  • Yes, I thought of an improvised exam outside a medical office. You can replace "mesa" with "piso" if you like. – Alan Evangelista Jan 26 at 14:47
  • If I want someone to arrange themselves horizontally on a flat surface, whether it's comfortable or not, I think I'd say "Acomódese en [name of surface], por favor." But I'm not a medical professional so take that with a grain of salt. // The way I distinguish is, "acostarse" is for going to bed at night or for a major nap, such as when jet lagged, and "recostarse" focuses more on the horizontal position. However, I think your question might also be looking for this other meaning: "acostarse" can be used as a euphemism for sex. – aparente001 Jan 26 at 16:27
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As you can see in your definitions, the key of your answer is ' por un periodo breve de tiempo'.

Por favor, acuéstese/recuéstese en esa camilla para que yo te pueda examinar. -> I would say recostar, because I would not expect the examination to take a lot of time, but the verb acostar would not be badly used.

Me voy a acostar/recostar en el sofá por diez minutos para relajarme. I would say acostar in this case because my 10 minutes... let's be honest, are not really 10 minutes. I would probably take more time 'relaxing'. The other verb would not be badly used, by in 'my' context, it would be acostarse.

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