Confusing Pairs, Two With a French Twist

We have borrowed a lot from French and also given a lot to it. Sometimes, however, we each get things a bit wrong (see Guthrie’s Guide for more on this).

By way of further example: moral/morale and rational/rationale.


Morale entered the English language at the time of the First World War, when it was first used to describe the collective state of mind of the troops.

It seemed like a borrowing from French, and the final –e signalled a Gallic pronunciation with the emphasis on the second syllable.

This posed a problem for pedants, who pointed out that the equivalent noun wouldn’t have a final e in French. And in French la morale with a final E means what we would call morals.

As is often the case, people ignored the language nerds, with the result that in English morale is usefully distinguishable from moral.

Don’t confuse them.


I’ve seen these mixed up recently, which surprised me.

Rational (adjective) means ‘reasonable’ or ‘logical’; rationale (noun) is the underlying reasoning for something.

We get rationale (like locale) from French (and without the misapprehension we’ve seen with morale).


If you see someone described as a real trooper, it’s probably meant as a compliment – but it’s also probably a terminological error.

A trooper is a soldier, probably enlisted rather than an officer, in a troop. Trooper is an actual rank in some Commonwealth regiments, at the bottom of the hierarchy.

When you are saying someone is a team-player who really goes the distance, it’s trouper you mean – that is, the member of a theatrical troupe who steps in at the last minute to save the show when somebody else is ill or who takes on a horrible role without complaint.

Vary, very

I’ve yet to see something like vary good – but I have come across to very when the meaning is intended to be to ‘alter’ or ‘amend’.

Vary is correct there, obvi.

Could be a typo, but long and sad experience suggests otherwise.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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