Rifle vs. Riffle

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has a question about the verbs rifle and riffle in relation to papers:

One word I so often see misspelled in books is riffle. Authors will say, “He rifled through the papers in the file.” More often than not, they do not use riffled. I even see it in bestsellers.

Actually, papers may be either rifled (long i) or riffled (short i).

The words possibly share an etymology with an ancestor that had such meanings as scratch, scrape, steal, and rob. In Piers Plowman (c. 1400), Langland has the allegorical character Covetousness say, “I rose when they were asleep and rifled their sacks.”

Rifle can be used transitively or intransitively to mean, “make a thorough search.”

Sometimes the phrasal “rifle through” is used.

Crime writers (and police) often have occasion to use the verb rifle when describing the aftermath of a break-in:

I sat in the black leather chair and carefully rifled through the junk mail, bills, and personal correspondence.

A peace group in Cleveland reports a break-in of their offices. Some items of value were taken including computer disks and stamps, others were ignored and the office was rifled.

The intruder rifled drawers and files but nothing appeared to have been taken.

He rifled through a desk and found a security card to the building’s front door.

Drawers and filing cabinets had been rifled through and left open, but no property was initially noticed to be missing.

“To riffle papers” is another thing altogether. In the context of moving paper, riffle means, “to ruffle in a slight or rippling manner.”

Anyone who has ever sat outside to read a newspaper or conventional book has experienced the mild annoyance of having one’s reading interrupted by a breeze:

The breeze riffled the pages and he held them down and stared at the drawings, which seemed to come to life on the page.

Things other than paper may be riffled:

Cool breezes riffled through Leto’s hair as he descended toward the warmer surface.

A late-afternoon breeze riffled the water out beyond the lazy breakers and hustled some candy wrappers down the wet brown beach.

A sudden gust riffled palm fronds overhead, but nothing else stirred.

Another use of riffle is to describe the movement of flicking through papers or cards in such a way as to release the leaves or cards in rapid succession:

As the cards are held and riffled, the back design of the cards are observed. 

The dealer’s hands riffled the deck, and the cards made a smooth, purring noise.

With rifle and riffle—as with so much else—context is all.

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3 Responses to “Rifle vs. Riffle”

  • Susan B

    In today’s newsletter, Rifle vs. Riffle, you wrote, “As the cards are held and riffled, the back design of the cards are observed.” Since the subject is DESIGN (of the cards), which is singular, shouldn’t the verb be IS (observed)? Alternatively, the sentence could say, “…the back designs on the cards ARE observed.

    As always, I enjoy these newsletters immensely and thank you. I especially liked the clarification on Chance of vs. Chance for.

  • venqax

    I have always assumed that to rifle and to riffle were 2 different things as described. Although as I write this my riffle is being red-lined by my spell checker for reasons unknowed. That too.

  • Maeve

    Susan B,
    You are quite right. The verb in that example should agree with singular “design” and not plural “cards.” I rarely edit the examples that I copy and paste from my sources.

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