Aisle and Isle

By Maeve Maddox

When I came across this use of the word isle on a parenting site, I couldn’t help wondering how common the error might be:

…many people share beliefs from one end of the isle, and some from the other.

The context was an item about teaching children about differing political views without prejudicing them against “right” or “left.” The writer’s use of the word “isle” refers to the seating arrangements in the U.S. in which national representatives and senators sit according to party affiliation.

In the U. S. House of Representatives, members of the Democratic Party sit to the Speaker’s right and members of the Republican Party sit to the Speaker’s left. A wide central aisle divides the well of the House.

In the U. S. Senate, Democratic senators sit to the presiding officer’s right, and Republican senators sit to the presiding officer’s left. Metaphorically speaking, one’s political opinions can be said to belong to “one side of the aisle” or the other.

A Google search for “one side of the isle” brought up nearly seven million hits. Many of them were used in reference to small islands, like the Isle of Man, but a dismaying number of links led to texts in which isle occurred in a context that called for aisle.

Many were being used in a political context:

In the political space there are tons of examples that highlight this issue and they are often controversial. As I said they don’t reside on one side of the isle.

Shy of a few misguided Republicans I think the blame for this debacle will lie 99% with one side of the isle.

Where does each side of the isle stand on foreign aid?

Other examples occurred in literal contexts in which the meaning was “passageway between seats or shelves” and not “small island or island-like structure”:

If you are in a supermarket stand in the middle of the isle and stare at the products on one side of the isle… (leadership training exercise)

This [Amtrak] car offers what we call 2 & 1 seating, where there are two seat [sic] on one side of the isle and one seat on the other side.

Perhaps, the most memorable scene of perplexing symbolism follows Alice, with a shovel against her shoulder, and Luc through the toy isle of a supermarket. On one side of the isle, Alice is staring at Barbie dolls… (movie review)

A little boy was part of his aunt’s wedding party. As he was coming down the isle during the ceremony… (lead-in to a joke in which “isle” is used for “aisle” four times in six sentences)

Isle derives from Latin insula, “island.” When it came into English in the late 13th century, the word was spelled ile. Aisle derives from a word meaning “wing.” (Old French ele, Modern French aile.) The s was “restored” to the English word ile in the late 1500s. By then, ile and ele/aile had become confused, “perhaps from a notion of a “detached” part of a church” (Online Etymology Dictionary), so an s found its way into aisle to match isle.

Both aisle and isle are pronounced [īl].

Seating charts for U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate

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7 Responses to “Aisle and Isle”

  • Frank Elliott

    I groaned in exasperation when I read the title of this post.
    Please! This is just basic literacy!

  • Ken K

    Road to the Isles is a famous Scottish traditional song: http://youtu.be/b9WxHXt78Kw

  • Jarvis

    Derrrrr

  • Tom Jacobs

    Thank you for your interesting article.
    I was, however, somewhat confused by your pronounciation line: as my late English teacher has taught me, the [brackets] are commonly used to denote a pronounciation according to the International Phonetic Alphabet. Your -īl-, when pronounced according to IPA-standards, will not render the sound used in either aisle or isle: the [i]-sound is the sound used in ‘machine’ (see the paragraph Symbols and sounds in wikipedia’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet

    In my humble opinion your pronounciation suggestion is misleading rather than helpful-

  • Emma

    When I was in middle school I always thought it funny that the list of rules posted in the school bus included “Do not sit or stand in the isles.” I mean, shouldn’t a school district, at least, get things like that right, if they intend to teach kids proper English?

  • Maeve

    Tom Jacobs,
    I wouldn’t wish to mislead.

    I’m in the habit of enclosing pronunciation symbols in square brackets. I suppose it began when I wrote academic articles in which I did use IPA symbols.

    When I started writing for the web, I discovered that IPA notation is unfamiliar to a lot of readers so I started using system at Answers.com

    Anyone else confused by my square brackets? I can always change if it’s a problem.

  • Maeve

    Emma,
    Yes, I think a school district should see every aspect of the school experience as a teaching moment, including posters and announcements.

    Sadly, I have sat in staff meetings in which coaches and administrators tossed off their grammatical errors with a grin and the comment that they would “leave correct grammar to the English teachers.”

    We live in degenerate times.

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