Moral vs. Morale: How to Choose the Right Word

A Choice Between Ethics or Attitude

Group applauding inspiring speaker.
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The look-alike words "moral" and "morale" are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

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 own beliefs with regard to right or wrong, as well as a person's moral qualities as perceived by others, with specific reference to sexual morality and ethics. Moral was first used in English when the 6th century Gregory the Great's 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 language moral, meaning something like esprit de corps or the feeling of pride members of a group hold in belonging. The term was respelled to preserve the French stress on the final syllable in English.

Examples

Use moral as an adjective when you are 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 she thought was right for herself and what she thought was right for her family.

Moral as a noun is the underlying meaning of a particular fable or tale. The Greek storyteller Aesop (ca 620–564 BCE) always included explicit morals, and they were for teaching children how to be better people.

  • The moral of Aesop's fable, "The Fox and the Grapes," was "It is 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 she didn't care for the lax morals of today's young people.

Use morale when you refer to the mental or spiritual confidence 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.

Don't feel too badly, though. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that as recently as the mid-20th century, morale meant "the morals or morality of a person or group of persons," and in the early 19th century, it meant "a moral lesson." Moral also is occasionally used to mean "the mental or emotional state of a person or persons" in the 19th century, but none of these usages are common today.

Sources

  • "moral, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2018. Web. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/122085
  • "morale, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2018. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/122088
  • Fogarty, Mignon. "Moral Versus Morale." Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. 84. Print.