Reader Stuart Semmel sent along a link to a Washington Post article and wondered whether the use of sweets rather than candy in the reference to “the kind of neighbors who can afford a $5 bag of sweets to give to others” was a NOOB.

After reading the relatively short article, I  was ready with an answer: no. In the piece, the word “candy” is used nine times, including twice in the phrase “bag of candy.” Thus I cannot escape the conclusion that the one “bag of sweets” is less a NOOB than a case of elegant variation: H.W. Fowler’s term for writers’ efforts to avoid word repetition by coming up with a variant for the word term in question.

Elegant variation is a fixture of the sports pages, where home runs become “circuit clouts” and a second baseman becomes “a fleet-footed second sacker,” but you see it an all sorts of writing, and to my mind, “bag of sweets” is definitely it.

8 thoughts on ““Sweets”

    1. In Ireland, and I think in the UK, sweets don’t have papers. They have “wrappers”, if indidivually wrapped, or they come in “packets” or “bags”.

  1. Sweets was the word we always used in the west of Ireland, for what it’s worth. I don’t think I’ve ever used candy in that sense.

  2. Americans who work in high-tech circles will naturally hear “sweets” from their Subcontinental co-workers. Sweets, and sweet-shops, are a frequent subject of conversation among Indians and Pakistanis.

    1. Sweets in India and Pakistan are very different though – more like cakes or baklava. Often they’re made with e.g. semolina and flavoured syrup, or with ground nuts. They also have big sugar-candy lollipops (which I think is the same as popsicles in the US). You can see sweet shops of this kind in the East End of London (e.g. Whitechapel Road) and other areas of the UK where there are a lot of people of Indian descent, such as Leicester and Bradford.

      1. Grossly generalizing, in the U.S., “sweets” refers to cake, pie, candy, chocolate bars, ice cream, cookies, etc., so that someone on a diet would say, “I have to cut down on sweets.”

  3. British English distinguishes between “sweet” and “sweets”. The singular refers to the last course of a meal (eg spotted dick). The plural to the sugary confectionery (eg boiled sweets). Of course (as with all English usages associated with meals), there is both a class and geographic aspect to the usage of “sweet” (something for another essay perhaps). The late Julian Critchley MP’s memoirs were entitled “A Bag of Boiled Sweets”, as sucking on a boiled sweet was the only safe pleasure left for a parliamentarian.

  4. For me, in England, “candy” is used to refer to confectionery with a hard/brittle shell predominantly made of sugar. Solid chocolate bars are almost always called “chocolate” in the UK (never sweets, though sweets can contain or be covered in chocolate), which implies a certain luxury. We might ask if someone would like some sweets (loose, small treats like pear drops, toffees, liquorice allsorts, etc) or “a bar of chocolate”. The two are accepted as being different… except where “a box of chocolates” is concerned. But you wouldn’t call a box of chocolates “sweets”.

    Confectionery etiquette!

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