Which Word Wednesday: Disburse vs. Disperse

By August 8, 2012 language 3 Comments

Being a word nerd can be lonely. That’s why it’s so exciting when I get a submission from someone for Which Word Wednesday. It tells me others are somewhat amused and tracking with my wordiness!

This week’s submission of disburse vs. disperse is from dear friend Angel. (Thanks, Angel!) Let’s start with the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

disburse :: verb
pay out (money from a fund)

disperse :: verb
distribute or spread over a wide area

The difference between these two words is slight, found in the B in disburse vs the P in disperse. That makes it tricky in conversation, when the words are flowing faster than the brain can think. Even when the difference between the words is known, we can easily insert the wrong word.

Both refer to the outward act of distribution. But disburse specifically refers to distributing or paying out of funds while disperse refers to the distribution, break up, or scattering of anything else, such as ideas, advice, seeds, crowds, and so on.

One memory hook I see is that disburse is spelled with burse, which is close to purse, where you keep the money to pay out.

The good news is, these words sound so much alike, you only have to be concerned about proper usage in written contexts. And then we have time to look it up first!

What’s my WWW verdict? Use your purse to disburse money. If you are scattering anything else, disperse it.

What’s your verdict? Do these two words confuse you? Do you take the time to look up your word quandaries? Do share in the comments.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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