As a non-native English user, I sometimes have difficulty determining when someone mention "girl friend" really means girlfriend in a romantic relationship. Related post in ELU Does “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” always indicate partnership?

There seems to be no consensus to help differentiate the two meaning, especially in non-written interaction, except depending on the context. Of course, if the context is available.

In written communication where no previous context is available how can one tell when someone really means girl friend? What strategy that can be applied to subtly derive the information without making the situation awkward?

Ideally, the method should also cover email and snail-mail, where the exchange of information is not instantaneous and requires time; so the "clarity" of the relationship will be revealed in just one reply.

Note: I'm making up a habit to write "girl friend" when I do mean a girl friend. I never noticed anyone else using this style constantly, though.

  • 1
    This really is a language question. How could you possibly know without any context? But I think "girl friend" is not used much.
    – user3169
    Aug 30, 2017 at 3:54
  • @user3169 and HorusKol I'm more interested in how you can know it's a girlfriend or girl friend. Sort of how you ask so he can reply if it's his girlfriend or not. Sure, you can just ask "Is it girlfriend or 'girl friend' ?", but I'm looking for more subtle than that.
    – Vylix
    Aug 30, 2017 at 4:04
  • I don't think there is a clear-cut answer to this.
    – NVZ
    Aug 30, 2017 at 5:21
  • Could you add why you just can't ask? Doesn't seem too personal, since the other person brought it up. On the language side, I think for "girl friend", just use "friend". In context it is usually clear whether it is a boy or girl.
    – user3169
    Aug 30, 2017 at 20:00
  • 1
    @Vylix I think answers here are going to be largely location and culturally dependent. In American English a straight man using the word "girlfriend" always means a romantic partner. The exception being that many women and gay men refer to their female friends as "girlfriend". I have never heard anyone use the word "boyfriend" non-romantically.
    – David K
    Aug 31, 2017 at 12:56

4 Answers 4


An easy way to handle it, would be to just assume 'girlfriend' and clarify with something like:

I'm glad to hear that you're seeing someone, how long have you two been together?

In this case they'll readily answer one way or the other.

Oh, she's just a friend.
Thanks, we've been together for X

That is of course a little blunt...

Chances are pretty good that if it is a girlfriend, and not a friend that happens to be a girl, you'll be hearing a lot about this person... New couples are like that... So gushy and happy and eager to tell everyone how great things are going, so if it is a girlfriend you're likely to be able to pick up on it through additional context before too long.

So... Just waiting is probably the easiest way to tell.


I don't think there is a clear-cut answer to this. As you say, context is important. And there isn't a clear distinction between girlfriend and girl friend either, as far as I know.

If I say, My girl friend is out of town., it most likely refers to my romantic partner.

If I say, I have some girl friends coming over., it may or may not be my romantic partners. It is most certainly very complicated to have such a meeting if they were all my partners. (Ha!). So it is most likely referring to some friends of mine who are girls.

To overcome this, you may consider using simply female friend, or an awkward phrasing a friend who is a girl. Then, there are some examples online for girl best friends, and a rarer and slangy term friend girl (don't use it).

You can, also, ask to clarify instead of making a wrong assumption when somebody mentions about their girl friend. You may ask something like:

John: My girl friend Betty is coming over tomorrow.
Jack: Oh, you mean you two are together? (or) ...seeing each other?
John: No, she's from my class. She asked me to help her study for the test. (or) Not yet ;)

Or furthering the conversation can give more information about the type of relationship someone has when they mention about their girl friend.

Another way is if it's in writing,

My friend Dany is coming over tomorrow. She's French. We go to the same college.

Here it avoids being thought of as a romantic partner, and at the same time, it shows that the friend is a girl by using she.


In German, the situation is even worse, because we don't use different words for "friend" and "girl-/boyfriend" at all. So we have to listen for some nuance.

The first thing that can clue you in is the linguistic context, i.e. language clues. In English, only "girlfriend" is commonly used to identify a non-romantic relationship, so I'll use this word in examples.

one vs many

When a person talks about his or her girlfriends, they're almost certainly referring to girl friends. If they actually are discussing their multiple romantic partners, they'll probably tell you.

my vs a

"I'm going to the bars with a girlfriend" - most likely a friend. "I'm going to the bars with my girlfriend" - probably a romantic partner, but could possibly be just a friend. In any case, the statement is ambiguous enough that it won't be weird to assume they're a couple. Unless of course there's another context to take into account, such as

sexual orientation and marital status

If you know the person you're talking to normally partners with men, you're pretty safe to assume they mean a female friend. If they had started dating a woman, they would probably tell you. The same goes if they're married

If you don't know anything about the person, and the sentence doesn't have any clues in it either, you'll have to ask. The other answers give good feedback on how to do that.

On the other hand, if you have no context about the person at all, it might not really matter which it is. You could just wait until the nature of the relationship is revealed in further interactions.


The easiest give away is plurality: girlfriends will almost always mean female friends. Men also rarely use any qualifier for our friends, so even if we are referring to a female friend, we would usually just say friend. The ambiguity comes when a female uses the term girlfriend in the singular. In this case, there is really no way to know if they have a romantic relationship or not other than asking, or if you know for certain that they are heterosexual.

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