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
"Everyone talks about rock these days," said Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. "The problem is they forget about the roll.".

Michael Hickey /Getty Images

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

How to Use Roll

"Roll" has many senses. As a noun, it may refer to a small portion of bread, such as a dinner roll, 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. It can also mean to wrap a flat, flexible object around itself several times so that it forms a cylinder. The result of any of these actions can be a noun form of "roll."

The word "roll" comes 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 or situation.

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

Here are sample sentences using "roll" and "role":

  • "The two of us and her mouthy teenage son opened some presents, and then we went to this steak house near her apartment. I wasn't hungry. I had some soup and a hot roll."(Raymond Carver, "Where I'm Calling From," The New Yorker)
  • "When they call the roll in the Senate, the senators do not know whether to answer 'Present' or 'Not Guilty.'"​  (Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Each player may roll the dice only once per turn.
  • This is the first role she landed since she moved to New York to try her hand at acting.
  • "The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say." (Anais Nin)

How to Remember the Differences

Here are ways to remember the differences between "roll" and "role":

  • "Role" is always a noun and has a single meaning, while "roll" can be a noun or a verb and has many senses.
  • Many rolls, meaning small pieces of bread, are round, so they can 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

Here are ways "roll" is used as a figure of speech:

  • 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 in the bank.)
    The expression "roll around" means 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 resisting with too much force. (Bill has learned to roll with the punch and not be too upset when he gets bad news.)

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