Fair vs. Fare: How to Choose the Right Word

Only one refers to equality and justice

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

The words "fair" and "fare" are homophones, meaning they sound alike but have different meanings. One can be used as a noun or an adjective, and the other can be used as a noun or a verb.

How to Use Fair

The noun "fair" (as in "state fair") refers to an exhibition, exposition, or public event where there is often food and entertainment. The adjective "fair" has a range of meanings, including just, unbiased, pleasing, clear, and clean.

How to Use Fare

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

Examples

As an adjective, "fair" is often used to describe someone or something that is impartial and just, such as a neutral authority like a judge:

  • The judge was harsh but fair; he handed down a sentence appropriate for the crime.
  • The rules of the game are fair—both teams have an equal chance of winning.

"Fair" also describes someone or something that is pleasing and attractive:

  • The knight hoped to draw the attention of a fair maiden.

The adjective is also used to describe something of a moderate condition or a moderately large amount:

  • Though the house was old, it was still in fair shape.
  • By the time he retired, he had saved a fair amount of money.

As a noun, "fair" refers exclusively to gatherings, recreational or professional, where there are a variety of exhibitors or vendors:

  • They bought kettle corn at the county fair.

"Fare" is also a noun, though it refers either to the price of transportation or something offered for entertainment or consumption, especially food:

  • The city has raised the bus fare to three dollars per ride.
  • They enjoyed fine Italian fare at the new restaurant.

As a verb, "fare" means to perform in a certain way (it often works as a synonym for "get on"):

  • Because of his knee injury, he did not fare well in the race.

How to Remember the Difference

Because each word has several different meanings, it's easy to mix up "fair" and "fare." A humorous article from 1860, written as a letter to a "fair" young lady, shows just how many different uses can appear in the same text:

"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..."

There are a few tricks for keeping "fair" and "fare" straight. The first one is simple—if it's an adjective, it's "fair." The adjective "fair" has a range of meanings, and you may need to use context clues to figure them out, but it's always spelled "fair." If the word is used as a verb, however, it's always "fare."

Things get a little more complicated once we move beyond adjectives and verbs. Both "fair" and "fare" can be used as nouns. One way to remember the difference is with this sentence:

  • We enjoyed excellent fare at the fair.

The "fare" is the food itself; the "fair" is the gathering at which it is eaten.

Sources

  • Bombaugh, Charles Carroll. "Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature: A Melange of Excerpta." Forgotten Books, 2016.