Steal and Steel

Commonly Confused Words

steal and steel
(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The words steal and steel are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

Definitions

The verb steal means to take someone else's property without right or permission. Steal also means to come or go secretly, without being noticed.

As both a noun and an adjective, steel refers to a hard alloy of iron and carbon. Used figuratively, steel means hard, strong, and tough. As a verb, steel means to strengthen.

Examples

  • "The number one rule of thieves is that nothing is too small to steal."
    (Jimmy Breslin)
     
  • "He was too shiftless to go out and look for another job; he didn't have the initiative to steal, and after she had told him three or four times to do a thing, he did it; but he never told her about a sick cow until it was too late to call the veterinarian, and if her barn had caught on fire he would have called his wife to see the flames before he began to put them out."
    (Flannery O'Connor, "Greenleaf." The Kenyon Review, 1957)
     
  • "As I lay on my bed for hours, watching darkness steal into the room, I let my thoughts wander uninterrupted: the days ahead, places I had traveled, people I had known."
    (Susan Allen Toth, Leaning Into the Wind: A Memoir of Midwest Weather. University of Minnesota Press, 2003)
  • Blues singer Brownie McGhee played with a steel pick on a steel guitar.
     
  • "His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool."
    (May Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
     
  • "Curling his hands into fists, Luca tried to steel himself for a fight, but already he knew it was pointless. Rifle or not, Stang was a giant of a man and Luca wouldn't stand a chance in a fistfight."
    (Patrick Woodhead, Beneath the Ice. Random House, 2015)
     

Idiom Alerts

  • The expression steal away means to move quietly and secretly.
    "The prime minister of Bayern, the kingdom on the other side of the mountains, had been visiting at the time, and all wary-eyed parties were so busy entertaining road-weary dignitaries that Ani had been able to steal away to the stables a few times to bring to pass a childhood wish."
    (Shannon Hale, The Goose Girl. Bloomsbury, 2003)
     
  • The expressions steal the show and steal the spotlight both mean to be the center of attention at an event.
    "People in Hollywood always said, 'Never act with kids or animals. They're impossible to work with, and then they look so cute onscreen that they steal the show.'"
    (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall. Simon & Schuster, 2012)
     

Practice

(a) "The gym was hung with orange and black crepe paper in honor of Halloween, and the pennants of all the competing schools were fastened to the walls, and a twelve-piece band pumped away blissfully on the year's sad tunes--'Heartaches,' 'Near You,' 'That's My Desire.' A great cloud of balloons gathered in the _____ girders was released. There was pink punch, and a local girl sang."
(John Updike, "Flight." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

(b) "She liked to drag her fingers along the chain-link fences we passed, and to stop at Maverick Market to buy Diet Cokes and _____ candy bars. I waited outside, worrying she'd get caught."
(Bret Anthony Johnston, "Soldier of Fortune." Glimmer Train, Winter 2011)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs
 

Answers to Practice Exercises: Steal and Steel

(a) "The gym was hung with orange and black crepe paper in honor of Halloween, and the pennants of all the competing schools were fastened to the walls, and a twelve-piece band pumped away blissfully on the year's sad tunes--'Heartaches,' 'Near You,' 'That's My Desire.' A great cloud of balloons gathered in the steel girders was released. There was pink punch, and a local girl sang."
(John Updike, "Flight." The Early Stories: 1953-1975.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

(b) "She liked to drag her fingers along the chain-link fences we passed, and to stop at Maverick Market to buy Diet Cokes and steal candy bars. I waited outside, worrying she'd get caught."
(Bret Anthony Johnston, "Soldier of Fortune." Glimmer Train, Winter 2011)


200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs