How to steal, rob and shoplift in English (a beginner’s guide)

Stealing is a common crime in many places – unfortunately. And just as there are many ways of stealing so English has a wide range of words to express these methods.

Stealing (or theft) is all too often in the news. If you’re learning English – and want to understand the finer details of such news items – ‘stealing/theft’ vocabulary is therefore important.

Here are the most common words related to this subject, beginning with the words I’ve used above – steal and theft.

Steal, thief, theft

Steal is a verb. It’s irregular (past simple – stole, past participle – stolen). The corresponding nouns also behave irregularly: a person who steals is a thief, while the action is theft (we can, of course, also say stealing). Always watch out for a thief, they say. Also watch out for your spelling of the plural – it’s thieves, NOT thiefs.

Someone who steals cars is a car thief but someone who steals from a shop is a shoplifter. If someone steals from your house or flat he’s a burglar (the noun is burglary). Burglars don’t steal from banks, though – bank robbers do that (they rob the bank). The crime, incidentally, is a robbery or bank raid.

Car stolen or only broken into?

If our car has gone from where we parked it, we say that someone has stolen our car. However, if the car is still there but something from inside is missing, we say that someone has broken into our car.

Stealing in shops and on the street

Just as we have a specific word for stealing from houses and banks so we use a different word to describe stealing from shops: it’s called shoplifting and the person who does it is a shoplifter.

Stealing on the street can be done in two ways, so we have two different words for the different actions. If someone attacks you and steals from you then that’s mugging and the person who does it is a mugger. However, if someone takes your money or possessions from your handbag or pocket without your knowing, then he’s a pickpocket (the action is called pickpocketing).

Example headlines

I did a quick search of this week’s news headlines; here are some examples of these words in use:

  • Welfare Department worker admits theft
  • Robbers on the run after daylight bank raid in Leicester
  • Gang of pickpockets escorted out of Leeds by cops
  • Man stabbed in mobile phone mugging

All bad news, eh?

Thick as thieves idiom

To end on a positive note, here’s a nice idiom showing that thieves are not always bad. When we say two people are as thick as thieves we mean that they have a very close relationship, are always together, and are possibly best friends who know one another’s secrets.

Is your language rich in ‘theft’ vocabulary? Be careful, English might steal some of your words!

Want some practice? You can test yourself on vocabulary related to theft and stealing here.

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Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.


  1. carmen - November 17, 2012, 8:06 pm Reply

    Very useful vocabulary. Thanks for sharing, teaching and posting!

  2. Daryl Hackbart - November 21, 2012, 2:14 am Reply

    Very good, thorough explanation of ‘taking what does not belong to you’. My mother once explained to me that you rob people, but you burglarize places. One cannot rob a house; it is not a person. A bank can be robbed because the robber demands cash from a teller or another bank official, both of whom are persons.

    And just a point of clarification, a shoplifter steals goods from a shop. However, like a bank, a shop can also be robbed if the robber demands money from the safe or a cash drawer. One can also steal from a shop without it being shoplifting or a robbery if the articles stolen are not goods for sale and do not require assistance to obtain them, e.g., taking a shopping basket home with you or stealing the soap and toilet paper from the restroom.

  3. benazira - December 2, 2012, 10:34 am Reply


    i really want to learn english better plzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz help me


  4. Harsh Tiwari - December 27, 2012, 7:32 am Reply

    You are very accurate to words.Thanks for sharing such valuable material so keep posting them.

    Thanx a lot

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