Inquire vs Enquire

By Ali Hale

One of our readers, Susabelle wrote to ask:

Can you take on explaining the difference between “inquire” and “enquire?”

These are two spellings of the same word, which means to seek information about something or to conduct a formal investigation (usually when followed by “into”). The corresponding noun is enquiry or inquiry.

Either spelling can be used, but many people prefer enquire and enquiry for the general sense of “ask”, and inquire and inquiry for a formal investigation:

  • I enquired his name
  • The first enquiry in my inbox today was about lost property.
  • We are going to inquire into the incident.
  • The lawyers asked when the inquiry will be completed.

In practice, enquire and enquiry are more common in British English, and inquire and inquiry are more common in US English, for both informal questions and formal investigations. However, the Guardian (a British newspaper) tells writers to “use inquiry and the Oxford English Dictionary seems to recognise inquire as the more dominant form, deeming enquiry:

”An alternative form of INQUIRE. The mod. Dicts. give inquire as the standard form, but enquire is still very frequently used, esp. in the sense ‘to ask a question’.”

So, it’s up to you which spelling you use, though if you’re writing for a particular publication, it’s worth asking about their house style. Sticking with inquire is probably best if you’re at all unsure, and whichever you pick, be consistent!

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87 Responses to “Inquire vs Enquire”

  • Geoff. Smith,

    The Great Vowel Change.

    I read the whole blog top to bottom and no one made mention of it; now I wonder if I dreamed it all. Vi was her name but pronounced Vee.

    Only once did I listen to an A.B.C. subject termed The Great Vowel Change.

    Can anyone enlighten me?

    Sincerely,

    Geoff. Smith.

  • venqax

    @Amanda: Shame on your mother for making you think that “British” English– whatever it is– is proper for an American. It is not. For an American to act like a Brit is simply an affectation whose effect ranges from eccentric to off-putting. And shame on your assumedly American English teachers for questioning your use of enquire. It is perfectly acceptable, if a bit off-center, in American English. As has been said here, repeatedly, the 2 forms are interchangeable in Standard American English. That means they both mean the same thing, and either can be used in any circumstance (though inquire is more common in SAE.) The 2 are also pronounced the same in either British or American, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that making a distinction there somehow brightens your speech. It, too, is simply affected. That probably is not what you are going for.

  • Chuba

    To “inquire” means to carry out an investigation into something. To “Enquire” means to ask for direction or to get a usually nominal meaning of things or events. Inquiry as such has a deeper meaning

  • Kevin

    I love Betty McGlynn, because she has no idea what is going on.

  • Amanda

    I am an American, more specifically a Texan, and I will be the first to admit that our American English is being watered down. My mother, also a native-born Texan, taught me to speak “proper” English. In other words, British English 🙂

    All of this to say, I have always received red question marks on my English papers for using “enquire” about asking a simple question, and get looked at strangely when I actually pronounce the two words differently. It’s very difficult being a Texas Brit wanna-be!

  • theWord

    For the record: “undistinguishable” is not a word translated literally in any language.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Sandy on January 19, 2009
    What’s the difference between the prefixes “in” and “un”.

    The answer is simple: there isn’t any difference in their meanings. The are both prefixes of negation, but their sources are difference:

    “Un” came from German, or earlier from Anglo-Saxon-Jute, into English, and maybe from Danish, too. Modern German has tens of thousands of words that begin with “un”.

    “In” came from Latin, or else via the Old French of the Normans, into English. Of course, Old French came from the Latin of Julius Caesar and during the following several centuries of Roman rule in Gaul. “Im” is a variation of “in”.

    These are the fundamental facts. “Un” is usually used with words with Germanic roots, and “in” is usually used with words with Latinate roots. However, I don’t doubt that “un” is sometimes used with words that have Latin or Greek roots. How about “unchaotic”?

    The prefix “non” is also used in German, but German does have some words that were borrowed from Latin, especially from the period of the early Renaissance (like 1400 – 1700), when Latin was the international language of scholars all over Europe. Even men like Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, and Isaac Newton wrote letters, papers, and books in Latin.

    Descartes: “Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I exist. – published in Latin in 1644, though he had earlier published it in French (1637): “Je pense donc je suis”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cogito_ergo_sum

    Here is one of my favorite pairs of words from Modern German:
    “moeglich” means “possible” and
    “unmoeglish” means “impossible”.
    This implies to me that “possible” has French / Latin roots.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Joshua Williams on April 20, 2012
    “venqax – I understand that it is important to take into account the cultural context of a word’s usage, but isn’t it equally valid to take into account the word’s historical development in terms of pre-fix development.”

    The word “prefix” is NOT hyphenated, and it never has been. In fact, the prefix “pre” is never hyphenated onto any common noun or common adjective. It is always directly attached to such words. (The same goes for anti, bi, contra, counter, di, giga, hemi, kilo, in, mega, mini, micro, semi, sub, super, tri, ultra, un, and many other prefixes.}

    See such words as preamble, prebiotic, precast, predestination, preempt, preflight, prehistoric, preindustrial, preliterate, premature, preposition, prestressed, preternatural, preverbal, and prewar.

    antimissile missile, bisexual, counterclockwise, hemisphere, inactive, megahertz, miniskirt, microscope, semicircle, submarine, superpower, tricycle, ultrahigh frequency, ultradense, unconscious, unknown.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Jessica Greenman. Huh? “Complement” is a technical word in mathematics, logic, and engineering.
    If “A” is a set within a universal set U, then the complement of A is everything in U that is not in A. This is very simple showing by using a Venn diagram, but diagrams are not available here — so let me give a couple of examples:

    1. Let U = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. 10} and let A = {5, 6, 7, 8}.
    Then the complement of A is {1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10}.

    2. Let U = {the real numbers between zero and two}.
    Let A = {the rational numbers between zero and two}
    Then the complement of A = {the irrational numbers between zero and two}.

    It can also be shown that the complement of A is a much larger set of numbers than is the set A, but that is a different subject in mathematics.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    @Sandra and Zoom: Unless you are American. In SAE there is no distinction between enquiry and inquiry. Inquiry is the normal form for any use. Enquiry is not wrong, but is seen as somewhat archaic in SAE. In the USA, a legal investigation is called that– an investigation. Inquiry is not used in that sense in SAE. There are other similar situations between British and SAE, e.g. Br distinguishes practice and practise, whereas SAE uses practice for all purposes. Different standards apply in different places (this has been said so many times it needs its own key on the keyboard).

    OTOH, if you want to make that distinctions personally, in your own writing, then by all means feel free. Similarly some use healthful to mean conducive to health and reserve healthy to mean the condition of being in good health. A good distinction probably, altho there is no authority for it, meaning that healthy has been used to mean both for a very, very long time and the 2 words have never been formally distinguished.

  • Zoom

    @Sandra – You are absolutely correct. Enquiry is to ask. Inquiry is to investigate. Two different words for a reason.

  • Dom

    Lets face it English is an eclectic language and is becoming increasingly so. It draws from other launguages, including technical ones, through common usage until certain terms or words become generally accepted. When terms, words or rules become difficult to use or begin to have reduced relevance they are eventually dropped from the language. A little like evolution, unless you are a creationist.

  • venqax

    Obviously, as the discussion of “Incorrect Pronunciations To Avoid” makes clear, spelling English “phonetically” wouldn’t be so easy. Those in the know, e.g., would say *February* IS spelled phonetcally, whereas *often* is not. Should be *offen*. Or could say *archipelego* is spelled phonetically, because CHs in words that come from Greek are pronounced with a K sound. That IS a rule in English, not the breaking of one. Some problems SEEM easy to solve when you only have a superficial knowledge of the subject.

    “So what’s the Black Box made out of? They should just make the whole plane out of that! Morons!”

  • pebekiwi

    Wow! I searched to see whether I should be making an ‘Inquiry’ or an ‘Enquiry’ and ended up reading this fascinating debate about the English languages.

    And what a debate! Such a learned bunch of teachers, authors, journalists and other language experts arguing about trivia. English is a rather silly archaic ad hoc collection of rules and exceptions that generally impair communication almost as much as they facilitate it. (So why was I on this site? Yes, you guessed – I was applying for a job and one descends to performing all sorts of demeaning tasks to impress one’s prospective employer.)

    What is Standard English? According to this thread the standard seems to be defined by the OLDness or the COMMONness of a usage or by the BIGness of the user. Such nonsense is what has gotten us into our current shambles. A standard can be anything that you want it to be. The best standards are well thought out, logical and useful. South Korea has an unusally high level of literacy influenced at least in part by their adoption of an alphabet that is logical and phonetic which also makes it simple and easy to learn. Bingo!

    Here’s an idea… why not start by re-designing English to make it a useful aid to communication? A phonetic alphapbet, simple spelling and drop all those exceptions. ISO standard English. EZ!

  • venqax

    — when the writer mixex up it’s and its–
    — long-winded explanations–

    Just trying to compensate for the lack of an edit function here which magnifies typos. Don’t want anyone to look like a moron because those are inevitable on on-the-flie posting bordes like this.*

    *Studies show that relatively few people think the word “the” is spelled HTE. Nonetheless they spell like that A LOT. Mysteries of the mind….

  • johnnysixpence

    Some of the pompous, condescending rants above are rendered totally ineffectual when the writer has mix up it’s and its. Forget the long winded explanations –

    it’s is short for it is
    its is used everywhere else

    If in doubt use its. You won’t look like a moron that way.

    EASY!

  • Dom

    A while ago I was watching a program on TV (ABC – Australian Broadcasting Commission) where a language researcher was discussing different spelling and language usage between US, UK and Aus. She mentioned that a lot of US spelling and grammatical ideosyncrasies are actually a more archaic form of English and remain more true to the original exported from the UK to US on colonisation. This gist being that the US has kept a purer form of the language rather than the UK which evolved/degraded/changed (you pick) over the intervening centuries. From this I think it is probably more correct to view language as an extension of a culture (usually by nation) rather than right or wrong and to stop whining about who has got it wrong.

  • venqax

    Udder rubbish. Is that a dairy farming term? Bovine hygiene-related I’m guessing? Sounds awful.

  • Carole Grimley

    “During my frequent email interactions with British associates, I realised that their English is far worse than mine.”

    Prepositional phrases do not requre a comma to separate them from the rest of the sentence.

    I imagine udder rubbish would consist of bits of mud and pieces of grass and whatever else a cow could pick up in a field.

  • David A

    Struth you guys would think that only ‘yanks’ and ‘poms’ speak English. We all know that the correct and most pure form of English is the Australian language!! I mean we must be right because we are the newest therefore we ditched all the udder rubbish on the way?

  • Englansi

    Well, I think you get to win most of the argument. Fair play. As a fabulously wealthy American you wouldn’t be interested in my rusty shilling, so that will have to suffice. It’s curious don’t you think that perception is such a weakness in our pattern seeking minds that we come to believe in it. I don’t think English people feel this way (Napoleon complex) at all, none that I converse with anyway. The overriding feeling is self deprecation. That’s what most of our comedians make their living from. I say our, I left years ago and have no plans to return. I also think the spelling and possibly grammar should be changed. It’s ridiculous. But until it does, I take personal pride in getting my feeble utterances as close to correct as I can. These kinds of discussions are a big help toward that. In my arrogant ignorance I was totally convinced of the I verses E argument. This page changed that.

  • venqax

    Not really personally directed at you Englansi. Simply frustration over the recurring mistake that somehow, because English began in England, the English spoken there has some special status for determining what is proper. It doesn’t, for a couple of reasons, one of which not its relative number of speakers. One of which IS the fact that modern British has changed just as much as modern American or any other national standard has in the past 300 years. In many ways it is American, not British, that has preserved the older, closer-to-original form, e.g., gotten, the American short A sound, the lack of any distinction between in- and en-quiry, etc.

    As to numbers and norms:
    If something starts ot in a particlar way and a later body alters it, however hge they be in nmbers, then it’s a deviation from the norm.

    No, that’s not what a norm is. Leaving aside the above examples where it is the UK, not the US that is the later altering body, a norm, by definition, is a frequency or a standard of measurement, and has nothing to do with chronology. If 2 out of 3 in a population exhibit some characteristic, then they are pretty much by definition determining the norm. It’s that danged ol’ Bell Curve. However, I’m not arguing that non-US English is a deviation from any norm, either. It, like others, is its own national standard with its own rules and conventions.

    A Napoleon complex in common slang/jargon, refers to someone trying to make up for being short or small with excessive bluster or pride or aggressiveness. Maybe the term is an Americanism. If I’m the biggest in the playground, shouldn’t I be getting something? Like extra lunch money, a reserved leaning spot on the wall, or something?

  • Englansi

    Bit tochy aren’t we ventqox? It was a tonge in cheek poke. If something starts ot in a particlar way and a later body alters it, however hge they be in nmbers, then it’s a deviation from the norm. Bt it’s a moot point and I nderstand how any challenge to a the biggest boy in the playgrond always ends in the little gy apologising. So I apologise, sorry apologize for irritating yo. If the norm is now to apply circlar logic, then I concede. Is the norm also to shot the important words? Then maybe I shold also say AT FACE VALE and that ALL is spelt with two l’s. Frthermore I’m a bit pzlled why yo shold define it as a Napoleon complex. I stdied history and that period was one of my favorites, bt I can’t see the connection. I SRE yo’ll happily get irritated to the point of crshing what little of my self esteem remains. I tried writing in American jst to show there are no hard feelings. (Replace the voiceless consonants /t/ with the voiced consonant /d/, shold be ok). Pip pip.

  • venqax

    Once again, we will reiterate (is that threeiterate?). American English does not “deviate” from any standard. American IS a standard, so that statement is nonsensical on its face. And furthermore, since 2/3 of the world’s native English speakers ARE American, then it woud by definition BE THE NORM if all were taken together. This British Napoleon complex, of al lthings is really unseemly.

  • Englansi

    Great thread and almost free of the usual vituperation over US/UK mangling of the language. As a pom(lapsed) I always thought the E and I debate a bit superfluous (should that be sperflos in American?) as the distinction seemed clear enough to me. Now I know otherwise, thanks. @ Sheldon, are you sure it’s ‘of’ they’re saying? The schwa renders the two in(un?)distinguishable to my ear. Or perhaps you are talking about the written mistake; in which case – nail ’em up I say! Nail a bit of sense into em!
    I would really like the language simplified, but American deviation from standard spelling is just causing international confusion( well, a bit of grit makes the pearl, come on septics; fight back). Those Dutch printing buggers who added all the gh’s and ou’s 400 odd years ago should certainly be dug up and tried for crimes against spelling, but just twiddling with the problem isn’t helping. Not sure how it could be achieved, even Winnie Churchill tried and failed and he was an Anlgo-American sautpil. If you’re going to drop the u, then the gh should go too. Innit.
    Does anyone know how the rules for es endings developed? They’re fairly clear for ed endings, T, D = /id/ voicless = /t/ etc, but I’m stumped for es. I know the rules, I just wondered how they developed historically, I have a suspicion it will help explain some grammar points. Ta.

  • Sheldon

    What a wonderful exchange of thoughts. I have always used enquire as a verb and inquiry as a noun. As an English teacher and grammar- nazi i find it quite lovely to know that people do care about what is “correct” but of course, as stated, language changes and evolves. Spellings are likely to change – but chucking apostrophes about the place willy nilly is something i can’t fathom. My greatest cringe is people who “could of…. should of…. would of… ” it’s HAVE!!!!

  • venqax

    Joshua Williams: Yes, it is. As I have said to mrmaumau and others above. Historically there was no distinction between the two AND in American English today the two are indistinguishable. It is, in fact, the British English “distinction” that is relatively new and ahistorical. So my caution was, basically, that if you are American you don’t have to worry about this. So don’t overthink it or use something that seems awkward to you. There are plenty of times when there are rules to be followed without sweating the few where there aren’t.

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