Q&A: Loose vs Lose

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're clarifying loose vs lose…

Q: Hi AWC, we got a letter this week from Julie.
A: Hi Julie.
Q: She is amazed by the number of times she sees the words “lose” and “loose” used incorrectly. For example, an ad promoting a weight loss program with ‘LOOSE WEIGHT NOW'.
A: Ah, yes.
Q: She thinks it’s unlikely that it was referring to extra ‘loose’ weight hanging around.
A: Although that does happen apparently after extreme weight loss.
Q: What a fun fact.
A: So, this is one of the classic errors. “Loose” means “not tight”. And “lose” means either to “not win” or “not possess”. Yet many a middle-manager’s pep-talk email has been spoiled by claiming their team cannot afford to “LOOSE” the sales incentive (when they actually mean “lose”). Curiously, it’s rarely confused the other way.
Q: Do you mean people write “loose” when they mean to say “lose”, but not the other way round?
A: That’s correct.
Q: Strange.
A: Yes, but we established a long time ago that English is a circus freak.
Q: Why the confusion? They’re completely different words.
A: Yes, it should be as simple as comparing “window” – the thing you look out of – and “widow” – a woman whose spouse has died. Totally different words.
Q: My aunt is a widow. And to confuse matters, she spends a lot of time staring out the window.
A: Um, okay.
Q: She stares so long, her eyes glaze over. Sometimes this happens twice…
A: Oh no…
Q: I guess that makes her a double-glazed widow?
A: Let’s move on, shall we?
Q: Actually, is “widow” only for women?
A: Yes, a male in that situation is a “widower”.
Q: So sad for them to loose their spouses like that.
A: You mean “lose”, but yes. And that brings us to a possible reason for the confusion. MOST double-O words such as “goose” or “moose” or “noose” all have the same sound as “loose”.
Q: So far so good. All I have to do is choose one of th— Oh wait.
A: Yes. The word “choose” is a notable exception, and a quick comparison on ngram shows that “choose” is the most commonly used of all the “oo” words.
Q: Aha.
A: Add in words like “booze”, “snooze” or “ooze” and even plurals such as “boos” or “moos” and “zoos” – and you have far more double-O words followed by the “z” sound. It muddies things a bit.
Q: I’m sure you could play that game with lots of words though. Because, circus freak.
A: It’s true. And that’s why the easiest thing is just to have an easy way to relate “lose” to its correct spelling. One trick is to say that “lose” loses an O. Another may be to link it to the word “loss” or “lost”, which are never mistaken and contain just one O. Or conjure an image in your mind of someone losing a “rose”.
Q: Like on The Bachelor?
A: Yes, good thinking.
Q: My widow aunt auditioned for The Bachelor.
A: Oh, really? How did she go?
Q: Not well. Her mascara kept running under the studio lights and dripping onto her glasses.
A: Oh, that’s a shame. Wait. Oh please don’t…
Q: Yes, she was a stained glass widow! Hahahaa.
A: Where did that noose go…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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