Straight vs. Strait: How to Choose the Right Word

Straight is always an adverb, whereas strait is a noun

A strait
(Marcos Welsh/Getty Images)

The words "straight" and "strait" are homophones: They sound alike but have different meanings. As an adjective, "straight" has several meanings, including level, upright, not bent, extending in the same direction, accurate, and honest. As an adverb, "straight" means directly or in a "straight" line. The noun "strait" usually refers to a narrow waterway. The plural form, "straits," means difficulty or distress.

"The confusion between "strait" and "straight" is about five centuries old," notes William Safire in "Coming to Terms." "Strait is from the Latin stringere, 'to bind'; "straight" is from the Middle English strecchen, 'to stretch.'"

How to Use "Straight"

In the most-often-used sense, "straight" means extending in the same direction without curving when used as an adjective, and it means "directly" when used as an adverb. A sentence with "straight" as an adjective is, "The line he drew was perfectly 'straight'" or "He drew a 'straight' line." When used as an adverb, a part of speech that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, a sentence using "straight" might read: "He ran 'straight' to her room." In this example, "straight" modifies the verb "ran."

How to Use "Strait"

"Strait" is almost always a noun. It means a narrow channel joining two larger bodies of water. A classic example of the use of the word "strait" would be the Strait of Gibraltar. This "strait," situated between Gibraltar and Peninsular Spain, connects two bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Examples

The most common use of the word "straight" is describing something that is not crooked, or its opposite, as in "Ben's nose wasn't quite 'straight,' and there was also something a little lopsided about his mouth." Other examples use the term meaning "directly," as in:

  • After the test, he went "straight" home.
  • Don't turn left or right; just drive "straight" down the road until you get to the coffee shop.

"Strait," by contrast, is most often used to describe a channel connecting two bodies of water. For this use, you might say:

  • Taking a steam launch, we crossed the "strait" at an early hour to catch the express train to our destination.

"Strait" can also refer to being in a dire predicament, as in:

  • I could never ask a relative for money unless I were in hopeless "straits."

How to Remember the Difference

Remember that "strait" means narrow, confined, or constrained. And the word "strait" has fewer letters than "straight," so it is more confined. "Straight," by contrast, has a wider meaning; that is, it can mean many more things than "strait." So, "straight" needs more letters than "strait" to contain all those meanings.

Idiom Alerts

There are several idiomatic uses for "straight" and "strait" to keep in mind:

Keeping a straight face: The expression "to keep a straight face" means to maintain a blank or serious expression, especially when trying not to laugh, as in: "He tried to keep a 'straight' face, but he couldn't help laughing at the comedian's jokes."

Straight talk: The expression "straight talk" refers to speech that is plain, direct, and honest. For example, you might say, "Tell me the truth; be 'straight' with me."

Setting the record straight: The expression "set the record straight" means to correct a misunderstanding or offer an accurate version of events that have been incorrectly reported. An example would be, "He called on the newspaper to run a correction to 'set the record straight' after it ran the error-plagued article."

Straitlaced vs. straightlaced: "Straightlaced" is a variant of "straitlaced," which can be used to describe someone who is strict or severe in behavior or moral views or to express the notion of confinement, as in a corset.

"Straitjacket" vs. "Straightjacket"

Use "straitjacket" when you are referring to a cover or overgarment made of strong material (such as canvas) used to bind the body, particularly the arms, in restraining a violent prisoner or patient, or just to mean something that restricts or confines like a "straitjacket."

Merriam-Webster does give "straightjacket" as an alternative spelling, but it is not the preferred spelling. Use "straitjacket" instead. You can remember the term by recalling that a "straitjacket" confines or restrains; thus the word is narrower and contains fewer letters than "straightjacket."

The term also has a couple of variants, such as "straitjacketed," generally meaning someone who is confined or restricted in some way, and "straitjacketing," a verb referring to the process of confining or restricting someone.

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