Why Writing Is In Dire Straits

Why Writing Is In Dire Straits

Dire straits are tricky for ships to navigate, and have come to more broadly mean a bad situation. ‘Dire straights’ is a spelling error, and means bad form on the part of the writer.

[credit provider=”flickr” creator=”Victor Schiferli” url=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/victorschiferli/3556672308/”]

We recently examined the case of whether ‘straitjacket’ or ‘straightjacket’ was the correct spelling (short answer: use either but be consistent).

While the same issue exists here — people choose ‘straight’ because it’s a more common word than ‘strait’ — the get-out-of-linguistic-jail clause does not apply this time around. ‘Dire straits’ is the only correct spelling. ‘Dire straights’ is a mistake. Yes, that represents a level of inconsistency. English spelling is rarely straightforward. Get used to it.

This is not a mistake anyone of my age is particularly likely to make, if only because the band Dire Straits was so omnipresent in Australia in the mid-1980s. Younger folk don’t have that advantage; like Mark Knopfler, you’ll simply have to practise until you get it right. Thanks KM for the topic suggestion.

Lifehacker’s Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


  • There are the famous straits, such as Strait of Gibraltar and Bering Strait, so I see no reason that people don’t know what a strait is. So ‘dire strait’ as a phrase makes sense (nautically).

    Sometimes music bands use play on words or incorrect spelling (on purpose), so relying on the band Dire Straits for spelling may not be a good idea.

      • I know I’m late to the party with this comment, but…

        the get-out-of-linguistic-jail clause does not apply this time around.

        You mean “gaol”, right?

        I agree that the “gaol” spelling seems silly, but that’s the correct British (and Australian) spelling. I tend to avoid using either spelling when I’m writing and prefer to use the word “prison” instead to prevent the issue from coming up in the first place.

        And hey I know it might be nitpicky, but you DO write a regular column about spelling and grammar, so you sort of open yourself up to these kinds of criticisms 🙂

        • Let me quote the Macquarie at you: “In general, the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail.” I agree that using ‘prison’ as an alternative is often a good choice to avoid distracting the reader, but not with a set phrase such as “get out of jail”.

          • The Macquarie dictionary also says that the US spelling of “colour” (ie, “color”) is acceptable.

            The Oxford dictionary acknowledges that ‘h’ is generally pronounced “aitch”, but also says “haitch” is acceptable.

            The problem with most dictionaries nowadays, apart from maybe the Kelvin dictionary, is that they no longer specify how words are supposed to be spelled, instead they state how they are commonly spelled. And also include words that have crept into the language, such as “lol”, even though “lol” is actually an acronym, not a word.

            Proof that our education system is seriously failing.

          • Language evolves. Dictionaries need to reflect that. (Also, the Macquarie does not say ‘color’ is ‘acceptable’; it lists it as a variant and has a long discussion of ‘our’ spellings which I won’t repeat in full here. The statement about ‘jail’ is much more direct. )

  • English spelling is rarely straightforward. Get used to it.
    Why? Why should we be beholden to an abusiv (sic) dysfunctional out-ofdate wacky reading tool?

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