Coarse vs. Course: How to Choose the Right Word

These homophones sound the same, but have greatly different meanings

Golf course

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The words "coarse" and "course" are homophones: They sound alike but have different meanings. Originally, "coarse" and "course" were the same word, but in the 18th century, the difference in spelling and in meaning emerged, and the words have long since gone their separate ways, explains Bryan Garner in "Garner's Modern American Usage."

How to Use "Coarse"

The adjective "coarse" means rough, common, inferior, crude, or vulgar. It can also refer to something that is composed of large parts or particles. Synonyms for "coarse" would be harsh, raucous, or rough in tone.

When it means vulgar, "coarse" can refer to a film that is lowbrow. Sandpaper is often described as "coarse" when it has a high degree of grit, as opposed to fine sandpaper, which does not.

How to Use "Course"

As a noun, "course" can mean several things, including path, playing field, mode of behavior, unit of study, and onward movement. When used as such, "course" can refer to a path, duration, academic class, golf playing field, or parts of a meal. For example, a busy student might be taking many "courses," or hungry diners might go through several "courses" during the "course" of the meal.

As a verb, "course" means to move swiftly. You might say that blood "courses" through your veins, for instance. The word also has several idiomatic uses, often meaning obviously, as in "of course."

Examples

"Coarse" is largely used in a couple of ways: to describe the texture of something or to describe something as vulgar. For example, "My sister dislikes the 'coarse' language used by many of today's comedians," means that the sister dislikes vulgar or crude language, or profanity, used by many current comedians.

When referring to texture, "coarse" doesn't only refer to the roughness of sandpaper. For example, you might say:

  • The fabric had a very "coarse" texture.

In this use, "coarse" describes the texture of the fabric, which was rough and likely made of large, chunky material. The word can also describe material as being rough-hewn, as in:

  • The builder decided to use broken stones and other "coarse" materials for the foundation of the house.

"Course," by contrast, often refers to the links of a golf course. You might say that professional golfer Tiger Woods has played on many golf "courses" throughout the world in the "course" of his career. You would thus be saying the Woods has played on many links during the years of his career.

You could also comment that a certain professor has taught many "courses"—or classes—over the "course" of his career. And, in addition to meaning a road, "course" can also mean a path, as in, "The navigator of the ship set a direct 'course' for home." The word can also have a more esoteric meaning, describing a person's path in his life or even his academic career, as in, "After failing the entrance exam, Bob had to come up with a new 'course' of action."

When describing the different parts of a meal, you could say, "The diners enjoyed the main 'course' but not the other eight 'courses,' including dessert." This means the diners liked the main dish, perhaps a burger or steak, but did not enjoy the other parts of the meal.

How to Remember the Difference

It can be a challenge to remember the difference between "coarse" vs. "course," but EnhanceMyWriting.com offers a couple of tips: The word "course" contains the smaller word "our." Many of the meanings of "course," such as an academic class, a golf playing field, or parts of a meal, are things we do together. The word "our"—contained in the word "course"—implies something we do, celebrate, or hold together.

To remember when to use "coarse," use a British term: "Coarse" contains the word "arse," meaning buttocks, which in some circles is impolite to talk about. "In other words, to talk about an arse is coarse," says EnhanceMyWriting.com.

Additionally, "course" is always a noun or verb, while "coarse" is always an adjective. The words "coarse" and "adjective" both contain an "a." So if you have a flair for grammar, this might be a good way to remember how to use "coarse" (an adjective) instead of "course" (a noun or verb).

Idiom Alerts

The word "course" has a number of idiomatic uses in English. It's helpful for an English-language student to learn them.

On course: The expression "on course" means going in the right direction, moving forward as expected, or following a plan correctly:

  • If the student keeps going as he has been, he is "on course" to graduate two years early.

Take (or run) its course: The expression "take (or run) its course" means to let something progress or continue without interference:

  • Rather than try to break up the couple, the mother decided just to let the relationship "run its course."

Of course: Probably the most widely used idiomatic expression using the term, "of course" means naturally, for sure, or without a doubt. The expression often conveys a bit of an attitude on the part of the speaker, as in:

  • "Of course" I'm going on vacation with my family. Did you think I would stay home alone?

A matter of course: This expression, which is so familiar that Merriam-Webster's dictionary punctuates it as a "matter-of-course," means something that is expected or occurring or proceeding in a logical or natural manner. Using this idiom, you could say:

  • She accepted his advances as a "matter-of-course."
  • His "matter-of-course" manner caused her anger to flare.

Course as a Compound Word

There are uses where "course" is combined with another term to form a compound word. Two of the most common are "racecourse" and "watercourse." These terms are similar to "golf course," but unlike the term describing the tract of land for playing golf, these two terms incorporate "course" to form new words.

"Racecourse" is a synonym for racetrack, a facility used for the racing of vehicles, athletes, or animals, as in:

  • Though the "racecourse" was muddy after the rain the previous night, the horses negotiated it with ease.

"Watercourse" refers to a brook, stream, or artificially constructed water channel, as in:

  • The banks of the "watercourse" were steep and treacherous, but the seasoned explorers managed to pass over them with little difficulty.

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