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Flaunting the rules or flouting your bewilderment?

Have you ever had a moment’s pause about whether to use flaunt or flout… and then plumped for the wrong one? You may be confused, but you’re not alone! The erroneous heading above illustrates the misunderstanding that many people experience over the correct meanings of these words. However, while flaunt and flout sound fairly similar when you say them (the main cause of the mix-up), the two words are very different in meaning.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it!

‘Flaunt’ means ‘to display something in a way that is showy and obvious’. Oxford’s database of twenty-first-century English, the Oxford English Corpus, shows that we typically use ‘flaunt’ rather than a more neutral term such as ‘display’ when we want to convey our disapproval of people who do the flaunting. We tend to see those who flaunt something as boastful or rather tasteless, trying too hard to arouse envy or admiration by showing off their bodies, material possessions, or qualities such as sexuality, ignorance, or contempt:

Prominent drug dealers openly flaunt their wealth while social-welfare officials hound the poor who are trying to keep their families fed and clothed.

Newspapers and television ran popular images of the diva flaunting her body in a black leather catsuit or pursing her lips perfectly for the head shot.

Both of the major-party candidates brazenly flaunt their contempt for the U.S. Constitution.

Blatantly, flagrantly, brazenly…

As well as sounding similar to ‘flaunt’, ‘flout’ also carries the idea of doing something in a very obvious and noticeable way. However, that’s where the parallels end: ‘flout’ means ‘to openly ignore a rule, law, or convention; to treat accepted rules or traditions with contempt’:

Any bar owners who flagrantly flout the law will be prosecuted.

Government investigators found that employees openly flouted the rules and agencies did little to check their abuses.

Although people who ignore laws or rules are regarded in a negative light, we sometimes seem to imply a certain admiration for those who flout conventional attitudes and practices:

If there was a common characteristic among his heroes, it lay in their willingness to take risks and to flout convention.

Only those countries that were courageous enough to flout this orthodoxy managed to keep their economies generally intact.

Dispelling confusion

So, now we’ve looked at the correct uses of ‘flaunt’ and ‘flout’, let’s examine (and try to banish) the confusion between them. My researches on the Oxford English Corpus showed that over 5% of the total examples of ‘flaunt’ are incorrect – that is, people are using ‘flaunt’, when they actually mean ‘flout’. The most common error is ‘flaunt the law’ with 104 instances, followed by ‘flaunt the rules’ (60 occurrences):

X Too often these days teenage tearaways think that they can flaunt the law with impunity.

X Police … will be sending warning letters to those who flaunt the new rules.

These errors occur mainly in news reporting across the world, from the UK to North America, Australasia, and East Asia. As journalists’ writing is checked before publication, the high percentage of these errors shows that even professional writers and editors (who should know better!) are prone to this confusion.

A quick check of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that people have been mixing up these words since at least 1923, when the OED records this example:

X He achieved strong local popularity, a priceless asset to a man who lives by flaunting the law.

Although the OED, like most dictionaries and usage authorities, states that the confusion of ‘flaunt’ with ‘flout’ is ‘widely considered erroneous’, a few dictionaries treat this as a different sense of ‘flaunt’ (albeit with a note advising caution). They justify this because the incorrect meaning is established by usage and found in a wide range of published writing. However, common though this use of ‘flaunt’ may be, it’s by no means accepted as standard English and is therefore NOT to be used.

The mixing up of ‘flaunt’ and flout’ is mostly a one-way street: typically, ‘flaunt’ is used where ‘flout’ is intended. The incorrect use of ‘flout’ for ‘flaunt’ is much rarer, although examples can be found:

X The girl had no sophistication, wearing only shorts and singlet to his tutorial, flouting her femininity.

X Nick had known Tom Buchanan from Yale, who even then would flout his family’s wealth.

The best way to avoid confusing the two words is to stop for a moment and think about what you actually want to say.  If the basic meaning is ‘display something in a very noticeable way’, then it’s flaunt:

He flaunted his tattooed and toned shoulders.

Whereas if the meaning is ‘ignore rules or conventions’, choose flout:

Firms that continue to flout the regulations and create a nuisance face fines of up to £5,000.

A handy tip

Need a tip to help you remember this distinction once and for all? Well, just say:

Flaunt and display with an ‘a’; flout and ignore with an ‘o’.

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