Which Word Wednesday: Flair vs. Flare

By April 6, 2011 language No Comments

My creative-writer side sometimes battles with my stickler-grammarian side. The creative-writer wants to coin new words and phrases—this side of me wants to create new rules or bend the ones that already exist. The stickler-grammarian wants to follow the tried and true Chicago Manual of Style—this side of me wants to adhere to the rules and make everyone else do likewise.

So when a client once told me that they wanted to keep the ampersands in running their text even though the CMS–approved style is to use the word and in written text, my stickler-grammarian side cringed. But when the client told me they thought the ampersands added flair, my creative-writer side shrugs and accepts it. (Ampersands do have great stylistic interest, don’t they? I happen to love this ampersand art piece from Artsy Fartsy.)

These flairful ampersands have been on my mind this week, inspiring the latest Which Word Wednesday match up between flair and flare.

This pair of homophones causes confusion in written format because they are pronounced the same and in a writing pinch it’s easy to type one but mean the other. Let’s look at Oxford American Dictionary for starters:

flair :: noun
1 a special or instinctive aptitude or ability for doing something well  2 stylishness and originality

flare :: noun
a sudden brief burst of bright flame or light

Obviously these are different words that cannot be substituted one for the other. Writing that a friend has “a flare for dramatics” will give your readers a mental picture of one who wields a flashlight to show off.

Conversely, if you wrote that a friend has “a flair for emergencies,” your readers will picture someone who has a knack for creating emergency situations.

How do we keep these straight in the brain? Here are a few helps.

Flair—with an i—describes a person’s talent or style, something the individual is good at.

Flare—with an e—describes a flame, and both flare and flame end in e.

Mark Davidson gives this memory hook in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage: “A person who has an aptitude for using fireworks may be said to have a flair for flares.”1

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What’s my WWW verdict? These homophones are tricky! You can have flair for flares if you are a skilled pyrotechnist. And you can have a flare for flairs if you are a flame-wielding dramatist. Otherwise, we need to keep our skill sets separate from our flames.

What’s your verdict? Do you mix these words up with humorous results? Are you more of a creative-writer sort or a stickler-grammarian type? Share your comments and be sure to cast your vote in the poll.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 254.

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