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”

  • Joshua Williams

    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 inot account the word’s historical development in terms of pre-fix development. I feel that the strongest argument in this entire comments section was made by jbee650. From that explanation, it would seem that even from a historical perspective both pre-fixes are interchangeable and both usages are correct as stated above by the original author.

  • venqax

    Go Scuba Dive: Are you American? If so, you might want to hold off an that letter for a moment.

  • Go Scuba Dive

    Thanks for the explanation between inquire and enquire. This is very helpful as I’m writing my cover letter and needed a bit of a refresher.

  • venqax

    I seriously doubt that English is the only language with contranyms.

  • Martin

    English is indeed a crazy language. How else would you be able to have the same word mean 2 completely different things. For example sanction.

    To impose a sanction on; penalize, especially by way of discipline.
    OR
    authoritative permission or approval, as for an action.

  • venqax

    Siddharth: I think it is relatively common for the language of a learned-speaker to be more technically correct than that of a native speaker. I encounter it quite a bit, especially in writing. I would not say that the British are any worse with the language than others are, BUT I would also not agree that they are any better. There does seem to be a mistaken underlying assumption “amongst” some of the UK posters here that British English occupies a position of some kind of preeminence among the many national standard-Englishes that now exist. I’m not sure where this misconception comes from. The politics of the Commonwealth? A last vestige of– God forbid– nationalism in British education? A compensatory mechanism for all that’s been lost? It’s especially odd in regard to American English given that modern British has changed as much as American has in the last 300 years and in many ways American has preserved what was “British” English then more than “modern” British has. And the stereotype is that Americans are arrogant. Go figure.

  • Siddharth

    I am a non-native English speaker. During my frequent email interactions with British associates, I realised that their English is far worse than mine. Apostrophes are used where they are unnecessary and commas are missing where they’re needed!

    I have noticed this (incorrect English) in some of the above comments as well (and these seem to be from Britons).

    Perhaps I have interacted with far too few Britons to generalise my observation.
    No offence to anybody!

  • venqax

    grianagh: Interesting point. I also use hanged in that unique context and correct those who don’t (when editing). HOWEVER, I have encounterd some good sources who maintain that that distinction is something of a myth, and that it is perfectly acceptable to say, “The sheriff hung the prisoner yesterday.” Maybe, not preferable, and I think the distinction is worth preserving. Just not sure it’s technically wrong.

  • grianagh

    My pet peave, and I correct every character in a program (and have my husband and son doing the same) and news anchor when it is said:
    He hung himself, she was hung, etc…

    From my 5th grade teacher:
    Pictures are hung, people are HANGED!

    Remember it!

  • venqax

    A good example of the relevant issue. Inquiry and enquiry do NOT have a distinction in American English. They evidently do in British. There is nothing to “agree” with. It’s not a matter of opinion any more than “agreeing” with truck or lorry, or “agreeing” with color vs. colour would be. And, guess it needs saying, inquisition is a different word. So, it’s the comparison that is sillier than Python.

  • Bassam Guy

    I agree with the British distinctions between inquiry and enquiry. Formal vs informal.

    Additionally though, inquiries are never anticipated. After all, “noone expects the Spanish Inquisition” 🙂

    A Spanish Enquisition would have been quite silly, sillier than Monty Python.

  • venqax

    Mistermaumau:Sadly, the world is inundated (no, that doesn’t mean something is dated) with people who have no need or desire to differentiate (bet that will change into differenciate) between two completely different words such as enquiry and inquiry.

    Problem is, they aren’t really 2 different words. Before you blame the omnipotent Americans, check your own authorities: E.g. Quinion at World Wide Words:

    However, in RECENT times British people have developed a difference of meaning between the two forms. Enquire tends to be used for general senses of “ask”…, while inquire implies a formal investigation (as in the legal forum called a public inquiry). But this ISN’T ABSOLUTE by any means, and British English is being influenced by American English, in which inquire and inquiry HAVE LONG BEEN the standard forms

    Emphasis mine. The point being, there is no historical argument for the “corruption” of meaning of the words, or the precedent of the I vs. the E spellings. You don’t just get to make things up, and the fact that a usage is British doesn’t lend it any automatic venerability, propriety, or even age. It is the British, e.g. who have mushed and “reduced” the distinction between got and gotten. It is the British who’ve invented an atrocity like “jewellery”, in place of the much older and perfectly adequate “jewelry”—thankfully maintained in America. This without even raising the issue of average Britishers of the working type, as opposed to Oxbridge products, whose dialects, argots and pidgins are a hell’s-parade far more varied and frightening than anything that exists on the west side of the Atlantic.

  • mistermaumau

    Pedant, exactly. Sadly, the world is inundated (no, that doesn’t mean something is dated) with people who have no need or desire to differentiate (bet that will change into differenciate) between two completely different words such as enquiry and inquiry. This to the delight of politicians, lawmakers and lawyers, biased media reporters and contract writers who can then play on the “misunderstandings” this leads to in the real world.

    Given the chance, most people, specifically Americans, would prefer to reduce language to a manageable batch of 200 words describing everything of importance to their life, with the F-word being ideally suited for replacing over 30% of all words GB/US words without even leading to serious discussions over spelling.

    It seems old George got it slightly wrong and underestimated the Proles for it is from below that Newspeak is borning (there, my contribution to their language).

  • venqax

    jbee650: But the words’ history really isn’t relevant here. Long-established and current usage are. In American English, it is LONG ESTABLISHED, not just a recent fad, that inquiry/enquiry are not distinct. The usual spelling is I, the E spelling is a variant. In British English, OTOH, the 2 have developed and maintain distinct meanings. Probably mainly due to the British use of inquiry as a term for a law enforcement process. What in American law is called an *investigation*. The 2 languages have been evolving differently for a long time now, as have other national standard-Englishes in other countries.

    Michael: Same as above. The U-less spellings and the American context of I vs E nquiry are not new. Different spellings and usages have evolved in the US, just as they did in the UK and in other places.
    People are only using inquiry in or out of context depending on what the context IS. As for spelling, there are rules. Most people just don’t know them. An argument could be made for nite. But gorgus doesn’t work because Gs before Us (and Os) are hard. Like in GUN. That’s why the E is stuck in there to begin with. Now *gorjus* mite make sense. ;). But we are talking about CHANGING the rules. Not just getting them wrong.
    We’re annoyed by basic spelling errors and words used out of context but it’s okay to say “hey, enough people are using the word ‘inquiry’ out of context now that it now means the same thing as enquiry.” Cool. I guess that explains how “American English” (as opposed to “English English”) has dropped the ‘u’ in colour, favour, armour etc. How long until “nite” and “gorgus” are acceptable spellings of the words “night” and “gorgeous” ?

  • Michael

    We’re annoyed by basic spelling errors and words used out of context but it’s okay to say “hey, enough people are using the word ‘inquiry’ out of context now that it now means the same thing as enquiry.” Cool. I guess that explains how “American English” (as opposed to “English English”) has dropped the ‘u’ in colour, favour, armour etc. How long until “nite” and “gorgus” are acceptable spellings of the words “night” and “gorgeous” ? Hey, maybe its time to include numerical characters in spelling now too. Let me know, I’d like to name my son N8. N8 for 2056! L8r dudes….

    P.S Doesn’t it sh*t you when people say L8ter, adding the ‘te’? Thats poor numerical english there, that is. That’ll probably be acceptable a few years after l8r is acceptable though, hang in there, Bogans. The world will be yours soon enough!

  • Dave

    Hashi: you are pretentious and write in a bombastic manner that does nothing to enhance the way your comments read. Why do it? It is not impressive or poetic. I dread to think what job you have because if I had to do business with you I would tell you to cut the crap or get out.

  • jbee650

    This from the OED on the subject:

    Etymology: Middle English enquer-e(n , < Old French enquer-re (enquer-ant ), modern French enquér-ir = Provençal enquerer , enquerre , Italian †inquierere , †inchierere , inchiedere < late popular Latin type *inquērĕre for inquærĕre (analytical for classical Latin inquīrĕre ), < in- (in- prefix2) + quærĕre to ask. In English the stem-vowel was conformed to the classical Latin in 15th cent.; Scots retained the French form. The prefix began also to be conformed to Latin in 14–15th cent., but the half-latinized enquire still subsists beside inquire : compare endoss , endorse , indorse .

    What I get from this is that it all depends on whether you want to be identified as French/Scottish, or Latin/English. Use either one; at the end of the day, we all know what you mean.

  • venqax

    Albert Rogers: I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. My point was that in forming possessives of words ending in ss, it is, as far as I know, acceptable to use an ‘ alone or an ‘s as you would with other words. By acceptable, I meand that I don’t know of any definitive rule, 60 years past or other, that dictates one or the other as correct. I know that publication vary in regard to their policies.

    As for pronunciation, I think you would be correct that regardless of spelling, Rogers’ or Rogers’s shoule be pronounced ROJ-ERZ-EZ.

    Personally, I use the spelling ‘S in all cases– “the Congress’s budget”– for the simple sake of consistency itself. The common counter that three Ss “looks ugly” doesn’t seem relevant in the least. Appearences on a page should never influence grammar or spelling, chiseling newspaper publishers be damned.

  • Brian Clements

    Like you, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog. However, I would like to assure you that there are still some of us out here who hate to see the apostrophe used to denote the plural, even though I suspect that we are fast fading into history. The usage was formerly known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe but now it’s everywhere. Interesting that your entry used “fruit and veg” as an example.

  • ramerus

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog! It’s good to see that I’m not crazy to be so pedantic about how English is written and spoken. I came here because I figured that one of either enquire or inquire was incorrect to use, and I wanted to be sure.

    By the way, I’m from South Africa, and one thing that irks me tremendously about written English here is the use of apostrophes in to denote plural. It’s become accepted even in business documents! It makes my skin crawl. So you’ll see something like “Please put the pea’s and tomato’s in the fridge.” And nobody seems to notice how incorrect that is!

  • Albert Rogers

    venqax: your are correct in saying that it is, of old, acceptable to spell the possessive of “business” and business’. So I was taught, in the UK, in school perhaps 60 years ago.
    But I was also taught that the terminal apostrophe was to be pronounced as if the spelling had been business’s!
    I was too young then to voice publicly my opinion that the rule was utterly stupid, but I note now in America that the possessive of my surname, if spelt Rogers’ is pronounced as if it were Roger’s. So clearly it is stupid not to spell it Rogers’s in writing.

  • Albert Rogers

    Whereas I like the Guardian, I’d say it’s middle of where the road SHOULD be.
    On the other hand, I’m old enough to suspect that enquire is not the same as inquire, and that dictionaries no longer have the confidence to identify GOOD English.
    American “business” English is part of the cause of this decay.

  • Mark Shuttleworth

    I really wouldn’t give much credibility to the Guardian – it’s nothing but a left wing rag. It’s Pravda with tits and bums.

  • venqax

    Judi Hopper: I’m not sure I understand. Do you mean business’s? As in, “I have to do my business’s taxes”? The 3-S combo looks a bit odd, but is perfectly correct. I deal with it when talking about Congress’s issues all the time. But it is also acceptable, AFAIK, to just write business’ without the extra S. I think that is more a matter of style than of any real rule.

  • Judi Hopper

    I have looked about for a definitive ruling on the correct form for the proper singular, possessive of “business.” My go-to grammar guru; normally my know-all source could not give me a satisfactory answer. Could you please help?

  • Chuck Barnard

    Jeff “In language common usage comes to define what is correct.
    A sad statement, but one proven over and over.”

    Actually, which is true is language dependent.

    The French have had a committee to define the language as it is to be used (probably still do.)

    When the OED was first proposed, it was a conscious decision by the editors to make the dictionary reflect common usage rather than dictate what each word meant.

    Since the kinds of thoughts you can have are limited by the words you have to describe things, a dictated language implies a static culture and a reflected language permits much more and more rapid change.

    Thus the furor in France over terms used in American fast food which slipped into usage as such places began to appear on the Continent.

    English is full of adopted, adapted, stolen, borrowed, redefined, foreign words as well as words created by the speakers.

    Language Nazis who insist that a word can only be used for certain meanings or purposes are fighting an uphill battle in English.

    Most languages will use an existing word which is descriptive of an existing object/process from somewhere else as part of a new word.

    This has the effect of limiting word-length to an extent.

    Germanic languages tend to collapse a descriptive phrase into a single word–which can be quite unwieldy.

    Chinese has tended to grow in the same way by accretion–with characters from a phrase being integrated over time into individual characters with the same meaning.

    Often, immigrant’s speech will use the correct or nearly correct English words but phrase them using their 1st language grammatical structure.

    Milwaukee, Wisconsin historically had a huge German descended culture, and Germanic sentence structure (trailing verb) is still not uncommon.

    English does a lot of shortening of terms from descriptive sentences to combined syllables from the sentence into an often brand-new world.

    This makes the words easier to use, at the risk of losing the meaning…but anyone who has read technical German will know how tedious sentences as words can be….

  • Chuck Barnard

    “Sticking with inquire is probably best if you’re at all unsure, and whichever you pick, be consistent!”

    …at least consistent within a particular character’s speech–it’s one of those ways to differentiate pieces of dialogue…

  • Jeff

    In language common usage comes to define what is correct.

    A sad statement, but one proven over and over.

    If “inquire” is not already correct it will be soon enough.

    It is not going away.

  • Jessica Greenman

    Blessing: Compliment is when you offer someone (or something) praise and complement is when something goes attractively or satisfyingly with something else, viz.:

    1. I thought her pink lampshades worthy of compliment but her use of dead animals to complement them less happy as an interior design feature.

    OR:

    2. I complimented her on her delicious fois gras and also thought her home-made bread the perfect complement.

    etc.

    Pedant: it’s ‘its’ (possessive pronoun) not ‘it’s’ (verb) in your opening line, viz.:

    ‘How sad to read the demise of the english language on a site dedicated to it’s proper use…’

    You need to remove that apostrophe, stop getting things wrong (if you’re a pedant), stop being sarcastic (just anyway) and stop using ellipses when they are not needed, and just aim to make you sound more reflective than you are. If you’d reflected, and if you dwelt properly on the mysteries of things, or even the mysteries of your own things, you would know about the ‘proper use’ of ‘it’s’.

    However, a lot of people do get this one wrong, and I will explain how to avoid it. It is a matter of ownership (what I have) versus existence (what I am).

    ‘It is sunny’ (existence) shortens to ‘it’s sunny’ because it (the day) is described by its property, that of being sunny, golden, overcast, snowing etc. This is the function of the verb ‘to be’.

    whereas

    ‘many defied its right to wear trousers’

    where ‘right’ is just one thing about ‘it’, not its overweening property, from which ‘it’ and its property are indistinguishable (ha); where the one IS the other (the day is sunny) and defined in and by those terms. You have to imagine ‘it’ here being a tortoise, or a dragon, or something that isn’t a person, a nuclear bomb maybe, or a packet of flour.

    ‘It is a dragon’, would contract to ‘it’s a dragon’ (because ‘it is’ is a verb) but ‘its right to wear trousers’ or indeed ‘its proper use’ isn’t a contraction at all, it’s a grammatical feature describing something about ‘it’ (‘right’ or ‘use’ in those two cases).

    Just generally, and this is not a law: ‘enquire’, I feel, has slightly more of personal aspect to it than ‘inquire’, and is very slightly more inviting and less formal; it is also a tiny bit more archaic, and the same goes for ‘enquiry’ and ‘inquiry.’ I think if one looks it up in Literature there will be court cases and the like which use the word ‘enquiry’ rather than ‘inquiry,’ so the word has mutated over time. I rather like old-fashioned words and am particularly upset that we all spell ‘lettuce’ ‘lettuce’ instead of ‘lettice’ but no one will allow me to use the old spelling. They also won’t allow me to use the word ‘derogate’ in the way I want to either, but that meaning went out in 1647.

  • Blessing

    Pls would u tell me the difference between compliment and complement. Thanks

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