Moral vs. Morale: How to Choose the Right Word

A Choice Between Ethics or Attitude

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You're not alone if you have trouble deciding when to use the look-alike words "moral" and "morale." In present-day English, the adjective "moral" relates to what is considered to be behaviorally right and wrong, and the noun "morale" refers to a mental or emotional state. In the relatively recent past, however, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that "morale" meant "the morals or morality of a person or group of persons," and "moral" was sometimes used to mean "the mental or emotional state of a person or persons," although neither of these usages is common today.

How to Use "Moral"

The adjective "moral" (with the stress on the first syllable) characterizes an action or object as ethical or virtuous. When it is used as a noun, "moral" refers to the ethical lesson or principle taught by a story or event. In the plural form, "morals" refers to a person's beliefs with respect to right and wrong, as well as his qualities in the areas of sexual morality and ethics as perceived by others. "Moral" was first used in English when Gregory the Great's sixth-century exposition on the Book of Job in the Judeo-Christian Bible was translated—the Latin title was Magna Moralia.

How to Use "Morale"

The noun "morale" (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) means spirit or attitude, the mental state of a person or group involved in an activity. "Morale," however, was borrowed from the French moral, meaning something like esprit de corps or the feeling of pride members of a group hold in belonging. The term was respelled to "morale" in English to preserve the French stress on the final syllable.

Examples

Use "moral" as an adjective when you're referring to a person's understanding of right and wrong.

  • Our mayor is an outstanding example of high moral standards.
  • My mother had great moral courage as an immigrant shopkeeper.
  • Anne found herself in a moral dilemma, caught between what was right for her and right for her family.

"Moral" as a noun is the underlying meaning of a particular fable or tale. The Greek storyteller Aesop (circa 620–564 B.C.) always included explicit morality lessons in his fables to teach children how to be better people.

  • The moral of Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Grapes," was that it's easy to condemn what you can't have.

In the plural, the term "morals" is used as a general statement about a person's moral philosophy or a set of personal standards of right and wrong.

  • My grandmother always ended our conversations by telling me that she didn't care for the lax morals of today's young people.

Use "morale" when you refer to the mental or spiritual state of an individual or group.

  •  When the teacher announced a pop quiz, the morale of the class quickly sank.

How to Remember the Difference

Although the two words have the same root and allied meanings, it's easy to remember that "morale" is a noun that means a spirit or attitude if you pronounce it to yourself as "mo-RALLY" and think of a rally that gets people excited and uplifts the group.

Sources

  • Fogarty, Mignon. "Moral Versus Morale." Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. p. 84.
  • "Moral." Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster.
  • "Moral, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018.
  • Morale.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster.
  • "Morale, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018.