smell vs. scent

Business Idiom in English, Intermediate level

ESL/EFL Test #132 [color=blue]“Ways of showing pleasure”, question 3

What a delightful those flowers give off when you touch them.

(a) bloom
(b) colour
© scent
(d) smell

Business Idiom in English, Intermediate level

ESL/EFL Test #132 [color=blue]“Ways of showing pleasure”, answer 3

What a delightful scent those flowers give off when you touch them.

Correct answer: © scent

Your answer was: [color=red]incorrect
What a delightful smell those flowers give off when you touch them.

Would you please tell me why the “smell” can not use in this case?

I think it can be and is used, Linh. We will find a better wrong answer for this question.

To me, the word ‘smell’ has a negative connotation while ‘scent’ indicates something positive and enjoyable.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: Visiting a patient[YSaerTTEW443543]

Smell is quite neutral, Torsten:

13. the quality of a thing that is or may be smelled; odor; scent; that quality of something that may be perceived by the olfactory sense.

It is also the word in common use. Not many speakers think to use the higher-register scent (which can occasionally also be unpleasant):

001. at her bouquet, still lively with its color and SCENT, and set her feet on their journey’s way
002. mall, dark, narrow, and filled with the mingled SCENT of beer, tobacco smoke, and Italian cooking
003. with their brittle brown leaves and their sharp SCENT of November; ripe pears lying in long grass
004. n him we could never have missed detecting some SCENT of it on the massive gusts of his laughter
005. a wisp of optimism as fragile as the SCENT of tropical blossoms that came through
006. stable-garage, which housed nothing now but the SCENT of rot, had a lawn before it. And the coffin


So I think. ‘scent’ indicates something positive and enjoyable, and smell is for general. There are bad smell and good smell also. Then in that case, ‘smell’ and ‘scent’ are all aceptable, but ‘scent’ is prefer. Is it right?

Yes, both are acceptable.

Hi Linh,

To go back to your original question, I think you have to take the whole expression: ‘give off a delightful scent’. I believe that if you use ‘give off’ with ‘smell’, you are indicating something unpleasant. The other word in the sentence pointing towards ‘scent’ is the adjective ‘delightful’. Accepting that smells can be pleasant and unpleasant and that scents are in the main pleasurable or strong, I think you have to take in the sense of the whole sentence.


However, going back to your original question, Linh (Would you please tell me why the “smell” cannot be used in this case?)-- both words can indeed be used in this case, and while all would agree, ‘scent’ is a more appropriate choice, the answers to this question should be changed so that ‘smell’ is not one of the distractors.

Let me give you some reputable authentic examples for ‘smell’ in this kind of context:

But when I do catch the scent, I don’t see any groups of flowers that would account for such a delightful smell. (Albuquerque Journal)

[geraniums]…as the sun shone upon them, they gave out, even at that advanced season, a delightful smell (Blackwood’s Magazine).

Whitish flowers are produced. A delightful smell is released when the leaves are bruised.(Govt of SA Pub)

Dear Teachers,

Many thanks for your explanations.

Although I think the word “scent” works well in the sentence, I also agree with Mister Micawber that if the word “scent” is to be the only “correct” answer, then the word “smell” needs to be replaced by something that is actually incorrect.

Here are some of my thoughts/reasons, along with some additional examples:

The word “smell” is not used exclusively for bad smells. Just think of the very common expression “the sweet smell of success”, for example.
And here is a sentence taken from another ESL website:
That yellow flower gives off a wonderful smell.

Here is another example:
The lumber was hard to work because it was full of frost, and the boards gave off a sweet smell of pine woods, as the heap of yellow shavings grew higher
[color=blue](From the novel My Antonia)

Another word in this general category is the word “odor”. Although “odor” is often used with negative connotations, that word is also used for good smells. Look at this, for example:

The word “scent” is not a word that is used exclusively for good smells. You can refer to the awful scent of a skunk, for example. According to one website, minks “give off a scent” – one which smells like skunk scent:
When minks become frightened, they make squealing and hissing noises. Then, they give off a scent that smells like a skunk. Yuck!
To me, the use of “give off” does not automatically mean that what is being given off is good. It is also possible for something to give off a bad scent:
Some insects give off a bad-smelling chemical to drive enemies away.

I think the problem here lies in the assumption that since “to give off a smell” is more likely to refer to an unpleasant smell than “to give off a scent”, the same is true when “smell” is qualified by a positive adjective.

But to my mind, rather than “pointing towards ‘scent’”, “delightful” in fact trumps the connotations of “give off a smell”. This effect is strengthened by the placing of “delightful smell” at the beginning of the sentence, before “give off”.

Thus both versions become possible (if botanically a little unusual) through the insertion of “delightful”.

Best wishes,