Roll vs. Role: How to Choose the Right Word

Roll has many meanings, but role has one: A part in a movie or play

Keith Richards

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The words roll and role are homophones, which means they sound alike but have different meanings. Roll has many denotations, primarily involving spinning or moving, while role means just one thing: The part you play in a movie or a play or, by extension, your function in any other activity.

How to Use 'Roll'

Roll has many senses. As a noun, it may refer to a small portion of bread or to a list of names of people belonging to a group, such as a school class. As a verb, roll can mean to move on wheels or by turning over (or simply to move at all), or to spin, wrap, or throw along the ground or floor.

Roll also can be used to indicate a rising and falling noise, such as thunder; an undulating motion, such as waves; passing or elapsing time; moving in a circle or back and forth; having plenty of something, such as money; or a quarterback moving laterally. It also can mean to wrap a flat, flexible object around itself several times to form a cylinder or cone.

The results of many of these actions can be a noun form of roll.

The word roll came from Middle English and means a small wheel.

How to Use 'Role'

Role is a noun that refers to a character played by a performer or a part that a person has in another activity, such as an argument, or in a familial, religious, governmental, civic, or military hierarchy.

The word came from the French term role, meaning "a part one has to play." That apparently derived from an Old French word, roll, referring to a roll of paper on which was written the text an actor had to learn for his or her part.

Examples

There are many uses of roll, and here are examples of some of them, along with a couple of sample sentences using role:

  • Please pass me the dinner rolls so I can sop up some of this gravy. Here rolls is a noun, referring to small pieces of bread.
  • Each player may roll the dice only once per turn. In this example, roll means to cause the dice to spin before coming to rest.
  • Wow, listen to that thunder roll! Here roll refers to the sound of thunder rising and falling.
  • Janet's father asked her about her day and got the famous teenager's eye roll. In this case, roll refers to a circular or side-to-side motion.
  • She fell asleep listening to the waves roll against the boat. This usage indicates an undulating motion.
  • When the ex-college player signed his first professional contract, he thought he was rolling in money. In this example, rolling means to have plenty of something.
  • As we get older, we often are surprised by how quickly the years roll by. This usage expresses time elapsing.
  • The younger, more agile quarterbacks are more likely to roll out to the flat than the older players are. Here roll means to move laterally.
  • Kindergartners enjoy rolling paper into a cone to make a simple megaphone. In this example, rolling means making a cone by winding paper over and over itself.
  • Uncle James enjoys his role of spending time with his nieces without being fully responsible for them. In this example, role describes James' function in his larger family.
  • Sally worked for weeks to perfect her role as the narrator in "Our Town." This usage of role refers to Sally's character in the play.

How to Remember the Difference

Here's one way to remember the use of role along with several tricks to recall how to use roll:

  • Role is always a noun and has a single meaning: a function as a performer or in life.
  • Many rolls, meaning small pieces of bread, are round, so they could roll across the table.
  • You can remember roll as a list of names by thinking about its verb form: Picture yourself writing names on a piece of paper and then rolling it into a tube, like a scroll.

Idiomatic Uses of 'Roll'

Roll has even more uses as a figure of speech. Here are some of them:

  • The expression on a roll means having a streak of success or a period of good luck.
  • Frank has been on a roll since he took a new job at the bank.
  • Roll around can mean to return, recur, or arrive again. When the holidays roll around, we'll have to get out our best linens and china.
  • To roll back means to move back or reduce. The grocery store is planning to roll back its prices for Presidents Day.
  • To roll with the punch means to move back from a blow to lessen its force. It also means to reduce the force of a setback by not using too much force to resist. Bill has learned to roll with the punch and not be too upset when he gets bad feedback at his job.

Sources

  • "Difference Between Role and Roll." https://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-role-and-vs-roll/.
  • "Role vs. Roll: What’s the Difference?" https://writingexplained.org/role-vs-roll-difference.
  • Rogers, James. "The Dictionary of Cliches." Wings Books, New York.