We’re all used to the confusion between the words ‘diffuse’ and ‘defuse’ as verbs, caused by the pronunciation of the latter with the KIT vowel rather than the more etymologically correct FLEECE. If we were to introduce a hyphen into ‘defuse’, and wrote it ‘de-fuse’, we might start hearing it differentiated rather more, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon, especially as other words which used always to have a hyphen are now usually seen without one: ‘co-operate’ is a case in point, leading to a confusion in pronunciation between ‘corporation’ and ‘cooperation’.
This is all by way of an introduction to another confusion which I’ve recently seen in a newspaper article, and here there is no simple way round it. As it occurs in a quotation, I’m not sure whether it is the journalist or the person being quoted who has created it. In a report on the progress of a commercial company, we read of “the illusive trinity of like-for-like growth, unit growth and margin growth”. Does this mean that although the company is reporting all three, their co-existence is simply an illusion, or, which I think more likely, is ‘illusive’ simply a mistake for ‘elusive’?


  1. Are you talking of accents that do distinguish these, or accents that have no such difference for unstressed [i] (crisis = crises)?

  2. I would pronounce ‘elusive’ and ‘illusive’ identically, with KIT in the first syllable of both. Others may use schwa in ‘elusive’, and I suppose there may well be people who use schwa in both words. For the second of these three options, there is the extra possible confusion between ‘elusive’ and ‘allusive’. Spell checkers are no use here – they will accept all three spellings as correct, and not flag up the difficulty. The only solution is to learn the spellings and the meanings, just as ‘there’~’their’~’they’re’ and ‘principal’~’principle’ need to be learned. If someone’s particular accent has clearly different pronunciations for the group, then that person is lucky not to have the problem!

  3. Embarrassing confusion along these lines some years ago with an Australian. The topic was the hordes of near-geriatric western men who come to Thailand and marry much younger Thai women from rural areas. And the argument, supported by the Australian, was that this was still a form of exploitation. Now the Australian himself had divorced his first wife (Australian, same age as him) and married a younger Thai woman and he suddenly realized that he might seem to be condemning his own actions. He quickly defended himself by saying that his new wife was no know-nothing bumpkin bimbo, but an educated Bangkokian of 30 years of age. ‘At that age,’ he said, ‘she has no ?llusions.’ ‘You mean literary allusions, Peter?’ He thought I was being deliberately dense. Maybe I was.

  4. There have always been homophones in different accents – sometimes distinguished in others. They probably come and go with sound change.

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