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Elicit vs. illicit: which one should it be?

Elicit vs. illicit

1. Such a question isn’t intended to elicit an answer.
2. VHF radio calls from the coastguard and other ships were illiciting no response.
3. He brazenly carried on an elicit affair with Bert’s wife.
4. She admitted to having been in possession of illicit drugs.
5. You can imagine the amount of booing this illicited.

Time to limber up your brain cells! Some of the above examples use elicit and illicit incorrectly. Which are they?

If you picked these three sentences, give yourself a big shiny gold star:

X 2. VHF radio calls from the coastguard and other ships were illiciting no response.
X 3. He brazenly carried on an elicit affair with Bert’s wife.
X 5. You can imagine the amount of booing this illicited.

You’re mentally fit as a fiddle and in no doubt as to the meanings and use of illicit and elicit. However, all the examples above are real, not invented. Taken from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), they appear in edited material from across the globe, including British, Indian, and Caribbean online newspapers, American journals, and English High Court decisions. All of which amply demonstrates that much bewilderment exists concerning the usage of these two words.

Such mistakes (or any other deviation from standard English) tend to cause people to misunderstand what you mean or become irritated: not the desired effect if you want to get your message across clearly! If you’re still scratching your head and didn’t grasp which examples were incorrect or why, here’s a handy guide to ensure that you shape up and make the right choice every time.

Here’s a quick video discussing the basics:

Grounds for confusion

You could be excused from muddling up illicit and elicit: when you pronounce them they sound the same (they’re homophones).

Given that the words also appear very similar in writing, you might imagine from the final -licit element that they share a common origin. However, this isn’t the case. While both words ultimately derive from Latin, illicit comes from French illicite, or from Latin illicitus, which is formed from il- ‘not’ + licitus ‘allowed’. This takes us back to the Latin verb licere ‘to allow’, which is also the origin of licit, leisure and licence.

Elicit, meanwhile, is from Latin elicit- ‘drawn out by trickery or magic’, from the verb elicere, from e- (a variant of ex) meaning ‘out’ + the verb lacere ‘to entice or deceive’.

Easy to confuse though they might be, illicit and elicit are therefore totally different words, with respect to their origins, meaning, and grammar. Here’s how to distinguish between them.

Illicit affairs

Illicit is an adjective, with two meanings:

  • not allowed by laws or rules;
  • going against moral standards; unaccepted or not approved of by society.

In the first sense, therefore, illicit has a very similar meaning to illegal (i.e. ‘against the law’). The OEC shows that we typically use illicit to describe illegal drugs, alcohol, or weapons (or the trading of these goods):

The UN estimated that the illicit drug trade is worth at least US $350 billion every year.

The police destroyed the raw materials used in making illicit liquor.

In the second sense of illicit, we frequently see it being used to talk about sexual relationships or activity (such as extra-marital affairs) which, although not against the law, aren’t condoned by society:

Suspecting that his wife was having an illicit affair, he warned her to stop.

Zola’s novel of illicit sex and murder gets an unlikely cast and glum adaptation.

TIP: when deciding whether to use illicit or elicit, think about the role that the word plays in your sentence or clause. If the word you want is an adjective (that is, it describes a noun) then it will always be spelled illicit.

(In the past, elicit has been recorded as an adjective. It was used in philosophical discourse and meant ‘of an act: evolved immediately from an active power or quality’, but the historical Oxford English Dictionary shows that this part of speech has been obsolete for almost 300 years.)

Eliciting a reaction

Elicit is a verb, with two meanings:

  • to manage to get information from someone:
  • to cause or draw out a particular reaction.

Typical objects of elicit in the first sense are information, testimony, answer, and comment:

He hoped the facial reconstruction could help identify the victim and elicit more information.

The hearing elicited some revealing testimony from the chairman’s congressional colleagues.

In the second sense, elicit is often used to talk about causing emotional reactions such as amusement, sympathy, surprise, or interest:

Most of the humour is more miss than hit, though there are moments that elicit a chuckle.

She tried to elicit sympathy by telling lies that her children have been bullied.

TIP: if the word you want to use is a verb, it will always be spelled elicit.

Words related to illicit and elicit

Both illicit and elicit have derivatives and the spelling of these may also cause problems. The noun elicitation, formed from elicit, has a particular resonance for me. Elicitation (or the process of drawing something out) is an effective technique that I employ as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Teachers ask students questions in a structured way that enables the class to deduce information themselves. For instance, we might provide a pair of sentences, one in the past simple tense and one in the past continuous, and ask students to work out the rules of how to form the tenses and when to use them. Eliciting the information, rather than merely spoon-feeding it to the class in a sterile, one-way process, helps them to remember what they’ve learned far more easily.

Although there are instances of it on the Net and elsewhere, the word illicitation is currently not accepted as standard English and should be avoided.

However, illicit does have two recognized derivatives, illicitly and illicitness. Illicitly is an adverb meaning ‘in an illicit way’ and illicitness is a noun meaning ‘the quality of being illicit’:

The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons.

How strong was your sense of the illicitness of this love?

You may come across examples of these being misspelled as elicitly and elicitness, but such mistakes aren’t as common as the basic confusion of illicit and elicit.

Mini-quiz: elicit vs. illicit

Think you’re now up to scratch with regard to illicit and elicit? Are you confident that you’ll never again make the ‘monumental blunder’ (as the US grammar and usage expert Bryan Garner terms it) of confusing the two? Here’s a final mini-quiz to check what you know. Insert either illicit or elicit (including verb forms and derivatives) to complete the following sentences:

1. Whenever I publish a piece such as this it ???? more questions than it provides answers.
2. It was a harrowing story of ???? love and violence.
3. All of these techniques focus on the ???? of consensus-based knowledge.
4. These substances have been taken ???? by athletes for body-building.
5. Rather than disappointment, the question ???? a huge smile.

Answers: 1. elicits; 2. illicit; 3. elicitation; 4. illicitly; 5. elicited 

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