What's the Difference Between Leave and Let?

Commonly Confused Words

leave and let
After I taped my sister to the living room wall, my parents wouldn't let me leave the house for a week. (Getty Images)

Although the words leave and let are sometimes heard in similar expressions (such as "Leave me alone" and "Let me alone"), these two verbs don't mean the same thing.

Definitions

The verb leave means to go away from or put in a place. As a noun, leave means permission to do something—in particular, permission to be away from a job or military service. 

Let means permit or allow. In the imperative, let is used to introduce a request or proposal—as in "Let's vote."

Also see the usage notes below.

Examples

  • Why do you always leave your dirty clothes on the floor?
     
  • Pip planned to leave school as soon as he turned 16.
     
  • "Each time they parted, she would leave behind, in the last instant before the door closed, a look that stayed with him, vibrating like a struck cymbal."
    (John Updike, "The Stare." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Knopf, 2004)
     
  • "A man is leaving for service overseas; he has forty-eight hours leave; his wife flies to him to say goodbye; they have forty-eight lovely last hours together . . .."
    (Martha Gellhorn, "Miami—New York." The Atlantic Monthly, 1948)
     
  • Please let me help you.
     
  • "Please, Inigo thought. It has been so long since I have been tested, let this man test me. Let him be a glorious swordsman. Let him be both quick and fast, smart and strong."
    (William Goldman, The Princess Bride. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973)
     
  • "When he said that he didn't have that much money with him, the judge let him leave the court with the promise to pay the fine on the Tigers' first visit to Cleveland during the 1910 season."
    (Charles C. Alexander, Ty Cobb. Oxford University Press, 1984)


    Usage Notes

    • "On the less sophisticated levels of American speech, leave is a popular substitute for let. On educated levels, the following distinction is carefully observed: let means allow; leave means depart. (There are a few idiomatic exceptions to this rule, but they present no problem.) 'Let me go' is preferable to 'Leave me go' even on the most informal of occasions, and a sentence like 'Leave us not mention it' is not considered standard English."
      (Norman Lewis, Word Power Made Easy. Simon & Schuster, 1979)
    • "Traditionally, there has been a distinction: leave me alone means 'leave me by myself (in solitude)'; let me alone means 'stop bothering me.' But only extreme purists will fault someone who uses leave alone in the nonliteral sense. Today that phrase is far more common than let alone."
      (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 2016)


    Idiom Alerts

    • Leave (Someone) High and Dry
      The idiom leave (someone) high and dry means to leave a person or group unsupported or helpless in a difficult situation.
      "This was a very public act of despair by workers who had spent all their lives in the steel industry but had been left high and dry by the chancellor when their firm went bust, taking their hard-earned savings and highly prized final salary pensions with it."
      (Alex Brummer, The Great Pensions Robbery: How New Labour Betrayed Retirement. Random House, 2010)

       
    • Leave (or Make) Its Mark
      The expression leave (or make) its mark means to have a significant or long-lasting effect.
      "Only now have I really begun to recognize how discourse designed to hurt can actually leave its mark. I recall after reading so many of these messages I began to feel sick, literally. So, words can debilitate, violate, injure; they can hit with the force of a stick or a stone and leave marks on the body."
      (George Yancy, "The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher." The New York Times, April 18, 2016)

       
    • Let (Someone) Down
      The phrasal verb let down means to disappoint or fail to support someone.
      "He had let her down at Christmas but she had forgiven him that. Christmas was special for everyone but her birthday was only special for her. And he wouldn't let her down again."
      (Patrick Redmond, All She Ever Wanted. Simon & Schuster, 2006)

     

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Leave and Let

    (a) Don't leave the children unattended.

    (b) Don't let the children play near the grill.

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words