Loose or lose?
Help! I am loosing the will to live with my smartphone!
Aargh! I almost lost the will to live when I spotted the above mistake, but simultaneously wished that my Inner Spellchecker would give it a rest, so that I could simply appreciate the content of what I read rather than be distracted by spelling errors. But not a chance: whether I’m reading online newspapers, printed novels, restaurant menus, or even road signs, I can’t turn off my pernickety Inner Spellchecker.
The confusion of lose and loose is one of the most frequent mistakes that my mental software has been red-underlining recently. Here are some more erroneous examples, taken from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC):
✗ By now O’Brien was loosing his patience.
✗ He wore lose-fitting jeans and a pale yellow jumper.
✗ Two convicted murderers are on the lose right now.
✗ He said that workers will also loose money by staying away from work.
✗ Don’t worry about your hair – let it hang lose.
✗ In high stakes poker, the first man to blink when bluffing looses.
Why don’t you have a go at correcting these sentences? I’ll give you the answers below.
Loose and lose are two completely distinct words, with different meanings and pronunciations. Getting them wrong means that people might not understand what you mean, or they’ll criticize you for poor spelling. In the interests of good English, reducing confusion, and not triggering the ever-vigilant spellchecker in my head, here’s some advice on how to choose the right spelling.
Lose that extra ‘o’!
The word lose, with a solitary ‘o’, is mainly* a verb. The forms of this verb are:
- infinitive and present tense lose
- past tense/past participle lost
- present participle/verbal noun losing
You pronounce most of the verb forms of lose with a long ‘oo’ sound: the infinitive and present tense, lose , rhymes with booze and snooze; the present participle and verbal noun form, losing, rhymes with boozing and snoozing. This is the main reason why people want to spell lose and losing with two ‘o’s: it seems logical because of the pronunciation – but hey, you should know by now that English spelling often strays from the path of reason!
The irregular past tense and past participle, lost, doesn’t cause a problem when you write it (there aren’t any English examples of the spelling loost on the OEC): because you say it with a short ‘o’ sound, rhyming with frost, you’re not tempted to add another ‘o’.
The central meanings of to lose are:
- To be unable to find someone or something:
My friend was always losing his keys and his cellphone.
She grabbed Mark’s hand so she wouldn’t lose him in the crowd.
- To have less of something:
His strength and endurance will improve if he loses weight.
He said that workers will also lose money by staying away from work.
- To no longer have or keep something:
By now O’Brien was losing his patience.
Rosa, who can’t afford to lose her job, is unwilling to take any risks.
- To fail to win a game or contest:
In high stakes poker, the first man to blink when bluffing loses.
That night, I was on the losing side.
TIP: if the word you want is a verb with any of these meanings, then you always spell lose with a single ‘o’.
There’s a moose on the loose!
Apart from having two ‘o’s, loose is different from lose in three main ways:
- Pronunciation: loose rhymes with goose and moose.
- Part of speech: while lose is mainly* a verb, loose can be an adjective, a verb, or a noun.
- Meaning: there are several meanings of loose, corresponding to the different parts of speech, but none of them have anything to do with being unable to find or keep something.
You’re most likely to encounter loose as an adjective, with the following main meanings:
- Not tied up or shut in:
Suddenly there were six loose horses charging around the yard.
All two thousand pigs broke loose and escaped through a broken fence.
- Not firmly fixed:
The farmer had three loose teeth and another three that were missing.
The stones were loose, making it a treacherous climb.
- Not held or tied together or contained in something:
A book bag or backpack helps keep loose items together.
Don’t worry about your hair – let it hang loose.
- Not fitting tightly or closely:
He wore loose-fitting jeans and a pale yellow jumper.
Paul was dressed in a loose shirt, trousers, and brown boots.
- Not strict or exact:
It seems like a rather loose interpretation of the word ‘slave’.
This is a looser approach to decision-making than is traditionally found in right- or left-wing movements.
As a noun, loose mainly occurs in the phrase on the loose, which means ‘having escaped from somewhere; not confined any more’:
Two convicted murderers are on the loose right now.
If you’re into rugby, then you’ll know that loose crops up as a noun in that sport too (it means ‘loose play’):
His line-out work was fine and he put himself about a bit in the loose.
TIP: if you know that the word you want is an adjective or a noun, the spelling is almost certainly* loose, with two ‘o’s.
Loosing the horses not losing them. . .
So far, so good? Right, let’s introduce a slightly more challenging point. You can use loose as a verb, but to loose is rarer than to lose and has a very different meaning. If you loose someone or something, you set them free or release them:
We loosed the horses and unpacked our things as we had always done.
This sense also has an extended, figurative meaning, namely ‘to release something or let something happen, especially something unwelcome’:
Chemical spills can be cleaned up, but there is no recalling the replicating genes we have loosed upon the natural world.
To loose also means ‘to fire a shot, arrow, bullet, or hit a ball hard’:
Wilson loosed a thunderous shot, which flew into the net off the stanchion at the far post.
Jets scream overhead, loosing off powerful projectiles which thud into the targets below.
To sum up, if you stop and think about the meanings and parts of speech of loose and lose, you’re less likely to make mistakes with their spellings. Here’s a quick-reference table setting out the main differences between them:
|pronunciation||rhymes with booze||rhymes with goose|
|verb forms||lose; losing; lost||loose; loosing; loosed|
|main verb meaning||to be unable to find or keep something||to release something|
|adjective forms||-||looser; loosest|
*Note: the Oxford English Dictionary does have entries for ‘lose’ as a noun (one meaning ‘an instance of losing’, the other ‘praise; renown’), but neither is listed in our dictionaries of current English.