Pail and Pale

Commonly Confused Words

pail and pale
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The words pail and pale are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.


The noun pail refers to a bucket -- a container for holding and carrying something.

The adjective pale means unusually light in color or weak. As a verb, pale means to become pale or to seem weaker or less important. As a noun, pale means a post, a fence, or a boundary (as in the expression "beyond the pale").

Usage Examples

  • To wash his little red wagon, the boy brought a pail of water, a sponge, and some clean clothes.
  • "He was as black as coal, with a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face. His eyes gleamed with mischief, and he held his head high. . . . Jupiter went where he pleased, ransacking wastebaskets, clotheslines, garbage pails, and shoe bags."
    (John Cheever, "The Country Husband." The New Yorker, 1955)
  • Marie walked along the path in the pale light of the dawn.
  • "Usually I spent the afternoons under the box elder trees, or by the ditch behind the machine sheds, where dragonflies and pale blue moths circled just out of reach."
    (Grace Stone Coates, "Wild Plums." "Black Cherries", 1931)
  • What passes for paella at most restaurants is a pale imitation of the real thing.
  • "I lit a cigar, and as I sat in my easy chair with the roses beside me the light of the July evening paled and paled till I sat alone in the darkness."
    (Bram Stoker, "Bengal Roses," 1898)

Idiom Alerts

Beyond the Pale

The idiom beyond the pale means socially or morally improper or unacceptable.
"The billionaire investor Peter Thiel, outed by the local arm of the Gawker media empire, secretly financed a lawsuit to destroy it. Silicon Valley did not rise en masse and say this was seriously beyond the pale."
(David Streitfeld, "What It Is Actually Like to Be in the Engine Room of the Start-Up Economy." The New York Times, July 5, 2016)

Pale in Comparison

The expression pale in comparison (with something) means to appear less important, serious, or worthwhile when compared to something else.
"[T]he financial benefits that come to men because of their greater investments in work early in life may pale in comparison to the sizable toll these investments have taken on men's relationships, especially with their children, by the time work careers subside or finish."
(Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford and Barbara Formaniak Turner, Men in Relationships. Springer, 2006)

Practice Quiz

(a) In the glare of the sun, Jennifer's red hair seemed brighter than ever, emphasizing her _____ complexion.
(b) The young woman carried a large _____ of milk on her head.
(c) Colonel Kurtz was operating without any restraints, totally beyond the _____ of acceptable human conduct.
(d) "Pete weighed each _____ of oysters on a scale and tallied the measures on a chalkboard next to each shucker's name."
(Christopher White, Skipjack. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) 

Answers to Practice Exercises

  • (a) pale
  • (b) pail
  • (c) pale
  • (d) pail
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pail and Pale." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Pail and Pale. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pail and Pale." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).