Going Strait

Narrowing down the difference between "strait" and "straight"

When two words sound the same and have similar meanings, you know they’re going to merge eventually. But until they do, it’s important to keep the differences “straight.” The men in white coats coming to take you away are carrying “straitjackets” because you are in “dire straits.” If you think of the “Strait” of Gibraltar, it’s easier to remember that the adjective “strait” means “narrow” or “constricting.” Another meaning is “distressed.”

“Straight,” on the other hand, means “without curves,” “unbending,” and things related. “Unbending” can also mean “narrow,” as in “She’s unbending in her opposition to same-sex marriage,” so you can see why people would mistakenly write “straightjackets” or “dire straights,” the British rock band’s spelling notwithstanding. “Straightjacket” has appeared enough that it’s now considered a variant spelling, a step up from “don’t ever use it.” But maintaining the “constricting” sense emphasizes the nature of the garment.

Then there’s “straitlaced.” The Associated Press Stylebook allows both “strait-laced” (the hyphenated version is the more usual spelling) and “straight-laced,” but for different meanings: “Use straight-laced for someone strict or severe in behavior or moral views. Reserve strait-laced for the notion of confinement, as in a corset.” So although the person has “narrow” views, she’s “straight,” not “strait.” Most dictionaries list “straight-laced” as a variant spelling, not a variant meaning. That puts the AP, often “straight-laced” in its own views, ahead of the curve.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.