The Difference Between Fair and Fare

Commonly Confused Words

A view of the Maryland State Fair at night
Remsberg Inc / Design Pics / Getty Images

The words fair and fare are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

Definitions

The adjective fair means just and unbiased or pleasing, clear, and clean. The noun fair (as in "state fair") refers to an exhibition or an exposition or a public event where there's often food and entertainment. 

The noun fare refers to food and drink or a transportation fee (as in "bus fare"). The verb fare (as in "fare thee well") means to go, get along, succeed.

Also see the usage notes below.

Examples

  • "Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not."
    (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, 1895)
  • "Today was Sunday, a hot fair day. Across a mile of clear air the church bells called, Celebrate, celebrate."
    (John Updike, "Pigeon Feathers." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Knopf, 2003)
  • "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealously, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting."
    (George Orwell, "The Sporting Spirit," December 1945)
  • "Down on the lawn among the apple and dogwood trees behind the house, the midway of a fair had been set up—a merry-go-round with a bandstand in the middle, and a Ferris wheel, and a row of concession booths lit with lanterns, where guests could have their palms read or throw baseballs at wooden milk bottles, and there was even a shimmy dancer 'from Egypt' and a stage with a red velvet curtain for her to go behind."
    (George Plimpton, Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring. Little, Brown and Company, 2016)
  • “Get a taxi and come out here. I'll pay the cab fare.”
    (Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name. Random House, 1974)
  • "Across a wide range of indicators, children in the United States fare poorly when compared to children in other industrialized countries."
    (William T. Gormley Jr., Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy. Brookings Institution Press, 2012)
  • "Welcome to Albatross Air—'a fair fare from here to there.' You get it? A fair fare."
    (John Candy as Wilbur in The Rescuers Down Under, 1990)

Usage Notes 

"As a noun, a fair is a periodic gathering of people for some commercial event. Thus you can have a sheep fair where sheep are bought and sold, a horse fair, a cattle fair, and so on. A fair can also be a combination of stalls and rides calculated to appeal to children, sometimes devised by a charitable organisation to raise funds, more often run by a travelling company who erect helter-skelters and ghost trains as a living. Ironically, this use of fair derives from the Latin feria which means 'holy day,' because fairs in the middle ages were often held on saints' days. As an adjective, fair can signify something that is attractive to look at ('women are the fair sex'), something that is light in colour ('just look at her fair hair'), something that is just and equitable ('that was a fair trial'), something that is clear and distinct ('you get a fair view from the tower'), or even to indicate a noticeable length of time ('I had to wait a fair time'). As a noun, fare can signify the amount of money charged for a journey (bus fare, train fare, etc.), or an amount of food ('a cheese salad will be my fare tonight'). As a verb, fare can indicate one's state of being ('I fare pretty well at the moment').
(David Rothwell, Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)

Comic Observations: "A Fair Letter" (1860)

The following letter was received by a young lady at the post office of a Fair held for the benefit of a church.

Fairest of the Fair. When such fair beings as you have the fair-ness to honor our Fair with your fair presence, it is perfectly fair that you should receive good fare from the fair conductors of this Fair, and indeed it would be very un-fair if you should not fare well, since it is the endeavor of those whose wel-fare depends upon the success of this Fair, to treat all who come fair-ly, but to treat with especial fair-ness those who are as fair as yourself. We are engaged in a fair cause, a sacred war-fare; that is, to speak without un-fair-ness, a war-fare, not against the fair sex, but against the pockets of their beaux. We therefore hope, gentle reader, "still fair-est found where all is fair," that you will use all fair exertions in behalf of the praiseworthy af-fair which we have fair-ly undertaken. If you take sufficient interest in our wel-fare to lend your fair aid, you will appear fair-er than ever in our sight; we will never treat you un-fair-ly, and when you withdraw the light of your fair countenance from our Fair, we will bid you a kind Fare-well.

Practice Exercises

(a) The airlines now charge extra for services that once were considered part of the standard _____.

(b) "To all, to each, a _____ good-night,
And pleasing dreams, and slumbers light."
(Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808)

(c) A trade _____ is an exhibition organized so that companies can demonstrate their latest products.

Answers to Practice Exercises

(a) The airlines now charge extra for services that once were considered part of the standard fare.

(b) "To all, to each, a fair good-night,
And pleasing dreams, and slumbers light."
(Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808)

(c) A trade fair is an exhibition organized so that companies can demonstrate their latest products.

Sources

Harvest Fields of Literature, Science and Art: A Melange of Excerpta, Curious, Humorous, and Instructive, 2nd ed., collated by Charles C. Bombaugh. T. Newton Kurtz, 1860).