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I've always assumed that you use 面熟 for people because they have a face (面). However, I recently heard a native speaker use 眼熟 about a person.

Are the two phrases fully interchangeable?

If not, what are the subtle differences (which I'm apparently missing)?

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They are not fully interchangeable.

In 面熟/脸熟, 面/脸 are nouns for 'familiar what'. 面熟/脸熟 means 'familiar face'.

In 眼熟/耳熟, 眼/耳 are functioning as adverbs for 'how is it familiar'. 眼熟 means 'looks familiar', 耳熟 means 'sounds familiar'.

As a result, 面熟/脸熟 are mostly used for people, 眼熟/耳熟 can be used on anything that you can look at or listen to. For a familiar face, either one is fine.

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They can be used interchangeably. If there has to be some subtle differences, 眼, eye, we see by eyes; when we look at people, we usually first look at their faces. 面.thus 面熟 in particular refers to 'people are familiar'. NS.X explains the differences well.

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    again question easily answered by looking up iciba: all 10 sample sentences for 面熟 are about people looking familiar, whereas 眼熟 has 3 sample sentences about rooms,handwriting ,or pieces of ivory, besides 7 about people looking familiar。 – user6065 Jan 12 '15 at 20:18
  • @S.Rhee - All that tells me is that both could be used in similar contexts. It doesn't actually answer my question (about whether there are subtle differences / reasons to prefer one over the other). – DaoWen Jan 13 '15 at 0:15
  • one context is all people,the other context is objects as well as people – user6065 Jan 13 '15 at 4:56

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