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The title pretty much says it all; I am wondering what are the differences between those 4 verbs.

From what I've gathered (and I haven't gathered much):

  • 優れる is used when talking about something that excels, or is better than other things, without directly comparing them. (She is the best in her class. Classical music is better.)

  • 勝る tends to be used with -に勝る when saying that A surpasses B in something.

  • 秀でる means that someone excels at doing something.

  • 抜きんでる doesn't really fit here(?) I list it because it is used in Goojisho's defninition of 優れる. Apparently it means "to surpass", "to stand out"

Since すぐれる and まさる * can * be both written with either 勝 or 優 I'd also like to know how often, if at all, you'd write 優る and 勝れる.

Are my interpretations correct?

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Well, I think you have explained most points on your own, so I'm just going to make good the rest:

Grammar

  • X に優れる / X に秀でる "excel in X"
    These verbs only take what field they are good at, and for comparison with others you have to add ~より or ~に比べて.

  • X に Y で勝る "outperform X in Y"
    This one can have both the target of comparison and the field by default.

  • X に抜きんでる "stand out from X"
    Though it can mark the group where they stand out with に, it is already a very archaic usage that you usually put any information with more explanatory phrases only when needed: ~の中で "among", ~の点で "in terms of" etc.

Except 勝る, they mainly describe certain states (adjective-like meanings) which makes them virtually unable to appear without ~ている as the main verb of sentence.

Meaning

All of them are quite bookish words, that you don't use them in casual conversation.

優れる and 秀でる are synonyms, but there is a subtle difference that 優れる is more like "be excellent" and 秀でる "have excellencies", that means unnatural to say 秀でる without "in what" part in the context. For example you can say 優れた人物 "excellent person" but not much *秀でた人物.

優れる and 秀でる assume the quality is something good for the speaker, and 勝る also tends to have such connotation, but 抜きんでる not necessarily good or bad.

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  • Can 「Xに優れる」also mean "better than X"? 「健康が富に優れるということは、言うまでもない。」from Weblio. – Eddie Kal Feb 6 at 6:24
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    @EddieKal I don't think it's incomprehensible but... you know, you can't trust Tanaka Corpus for critical grammar judgment. – broken laptop Feb 6 at 6:31
  • @EddieKal Or perhaps it should be read 優【まさ】れる, which is a classical conjugation, though still not very natural to pop out there. – broken laptop Feb 6 at 6:34

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