LOSE VS LOOSE: A Modest Proposal

by Eric Pinder

I think I’m going to “loose” my mind the next time someone misspells the word lose.

A man-eating tiger on the loose and a New England Patriots quarterback who rarely loses provide perfect examples of the difference between lose and loose. What am I talking about? Read on.

“Lose” is a verb. You can lose your wallet, lose a game, or (like me) lose your mind. Paul Simon even thought of fifty (well, five, but I guess that didn’t make as good a title) ways to lose a lover.

A bet you’re unlikely to win is a losing proposition. If you’re playing Scrabble and your opponent is winning, that means you’re losing. You’re not loosing. No matter how lopsided the score, you can take comfort from the fact that you’re never, ever loosing a game–unless the board is stuck in a tree branch after a tornado and you’re knocking it loose.

You can be a winner or a loser. But you’re only looser if you just practiced yoga.

“Loose” is sometimes a verb and often an adjective and, increasingly, a pain in the neck to proofreaders, editors, and perfectionist grammar nazis everywhere. Because almost no one uses it correctly anymore.

You have loose change in your pocket. Loose clothes don’t fit very tightly. The dog slipped his leash and has gotten loose. If you’re loosing chaos on the world, you’re wreaking havoc. You’re only losing chaos if your girlfriend’s name is Chaos and she wants to break up.

A zookeeper can lose a Siberian tiger. (The tiger might die, or zookeeper might forget which cage he put the tiger in.) Or a tiger might get loose (i.e. escape), as happened at the San Diego zoo in December 2007. A zookeeper can even loose (i.e. set free) a tiger by opening the cage door, but, well,

that wouldn’t be a good idea.


As grammar nazis go, I’m a fairly benign one. I don’t get bent out of shape when the express lane at the supermarket is labeled “ten items or less” instead of “ten items or fewer.” (Arguably they’re both correct.) The annoyingly widespread habit of putting an apostrophe in every word that ends in S, whether it needs it or not, does bring my blood pressure to a boil. (On a sign in town: “USED CAR’S FOR SALE” Used car’s what for sale?) But with proper medication I keep that under control.

Loose vs lose, however, threatens to make my brain implode.

I’m not sure what happened in 2005 to cause 80% of the English-speaking world to suddenly forget the difference between loose and lose, loosing and losing. I never noticed this error before. Suddenly it’s everywhere. Even professionally edited newspapers and magazines and Internet articles are starting to make the mistake.

The problem has become so endemic that I automatically flinch as soon as I see the word “loose” in a manuscript or student paper. I expect it to be wrong, and it usually is. Even on the rare occasions that it’s not used incorrectly, my pencil still instinctively moves to cross out and correct the offending word, and it takes my brain a second to catch up and realize, “Oh, wait, you got it right.”

What puzzles me most about this trend is that “loose” is such a common, useful word. If we absolutely have to have a widespread misspelling of lose, at least let it be something like luseThat way we won’t lose loose. (There, I’ve loosed luse on the world, in the hope that it will stop us from losing loosing. For extra credit, please diagram that sentence.)

I’m curious about pronunciation. Are there people who learned to read phonetically who see a phrase such as “loose change” and hear in their heads the pronunciation for “lose change”? For the moment, at least:

“Loose” rhymes with the end of caboose.
“Lose” rhymes with ruse.

So please, please, for the love of all that’s holy, lose that extra ‘o’. Unless you’re actually, intentionally using the word loose. But I fear we nitpickers are fighting a “loosing” battle here.

If you like puns, my book Among the Clouds is full of them, including many weather puns. Mercifully, the rest of my books are mostly pun-free, though you’ll find some wordplay in the newest edition of Life at the Top, too.

Loose Ball?

The debate is over. The infamous “tuck rule” did not cause the Raiders to loose to the Patriots in the Snow Bowl.

If, for example, Charles Woodson hits Tom Brady and knocks the ball loose, causing a fumble, then there’s a loose ball on the field. The Patriots may lose possession. Or a loose interpretation of the rules may allow the officials to call the fumble an incomplete pass. The Raiders may go on to lose the game. Raiders fans may lose their tempers or lose their minds and then go on to endlessly whine about the play for years to come. But one thing is certain: Neither the Patriots nor the Raiders will go on to loose.

After the game, a player can be a gracious winner or a sore loser, but never a sore looser. (Well, except in the case of a battered, injured quarterback who lets the ball loose after being knocked down by a 400-pound linebacker.  I suppose it could be argued that the quarterback is, in a literal sense, a kind of “sore looser.”)

If everyone’s spelling and grammar is getting so bad that it’s driving you to drink, at least this mug and pint glass will make it clear that you’re losing, not loosing, your sobriety.