Straight and Strait: How to Choose the Right Word

The terms may sound the same and look similar, but they differ somewhat

straight and strait
The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow and shallow passage of water (or strait) between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. (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 of 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 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. It also has a few mostly archaic adjective definitions, but these are almost never used. The phrasal adjective strait-laced uses one of the archaic definitions of strait—namely, tight-fitting, narrow, or as an adverb, meaning in a narrow or tight manner.

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." Dr. Seuss in "Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories," uses straight in terms of direction:

" 'And NOW,' giggled Gertrude, 'The next thing to do
Is to fly right straight home and show Lolla-Lee-Lou!' "

In this case, straight means that Gertrude is flying right home, or directly home, without any detours. You can also use straight to mean looking directly at someone, as Isaac Bashevis Singer did in the story "The Key," published in "A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories."

"A black cat approached from the other side of the street. For a while, it stood on the edge of the sidewalk and its green eyes looked straight at Bessie."

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 for Yokohama." 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."

Matthew 7:14 in the King James Bible uses strait in an interesting way:

"Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it."

The verse is a metaphor describing the way to righteousness as narrow ("strait is the gate"), so narrow, indeed, that few find and pass through this figurative "gate."

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 keep a straight face means to maintain a blank or serious expression, especially when trying not to laugh. Cindi Rigsbee, in "Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make," uses the expression as such:

"The entire time I was talking to her, she kept grinning at me. Sometimes the grin turned into full-fledged laughter, and soon I was having a hard time keeping a straight face myself."

Straight talk: The expression straight talk refers to speech that is plain, direct, and honest. Wendy Williams quoted by Nolan Feeney in "Wendy Williams Explains What Celebrities Can Learn From Kim Kardashian," published in the Jan. 30, 2015 issue of Time magazine, uses the expression with some panache:

"[Judge Judy]  is the aunt I always wanted to have. You tell her things you don’t tell your own mother, and then she gives you straight talk with the answer."

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. Jan Harold Brunvand, in "Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends," uses the expression:

"Have you heard about the guy who found the dead mouse in his Coke? It's time to set the record straight about this piece of Cokelore."

In Dire Straits: The phrase in dire straits refers to a very serious, difficult, or dangerous situation, as Jürgen G. Backhaus, shows in "Great Nations in Peril":

"Greece finds itself in dire straits. Greek women are still beautiful, the food is rich, snow-covered mountains reach into a blue sky—yet, there is a sense of despair and depression, many people want to get out, and the brain drain is swelling."

Straight-laced vs. strait-laced: Use straight-laced for someone who is strict or severe in behavior or moral views, notes Merriam Webster. Reserve strait-laced for the notion of confinement, as in a corset.

Straitjacket vs. Straightjacket

Use straitjacket when you are referring to a cover or overgarment of 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.