Word play – allude vs. elude and allusion vs. illusion

In continuing our examination of words often mixed up, we’ll consider some pairs of words that have a playful connection, and although some language experts dislike when they are confused or misused, they do not hold the same intense controversy as the pairs alright and all right or anxious and eager.

These sets of words are commonly confounded probably, as some commentators have noted, because of the closeness in sound when spoken – it’s easy to confuse the initial syllables, especially if pronounced softly or inaccurately.

There is not a lot of discussion on the confusing of these words/mix up because of the difference in meaning; it’s rather more a matter of understanding which word you need to use based on what you are saying, and perhaps checking to make sure that you’ve chosen the correct one since in cases involving these words, the meaning matters.

allude: to make indirect reference or to mention in passing:

she had a way of alluding to Jean but never saying her name (lexico.com)

elude: to evade or escape from (a danger, enemy, or pursuer), typically in a skillful or cunning way:

he managed to elude his pursuers by escaping into an alley (lexico.com)

Kirk Mahoney believes that the confusion arises, as noted above, because “many English speakers tend to pronounce ‘allude’ and ‘elude’ identically as ‘uh-lude’”; he recommends saying the initial syllables clearly: “pronounce the ‘al’ in ‘allude’ in just the same way that one should pronounce the ‘al’ in ‘allegory’, and to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘elude’ in just the same way that one should pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘email’” (kirkmahoney.com).

Another word sometimes mistaken for allude along with elude, is the rare verb illude, which means “to deceive with an illusion” (Garner’s 36).

This brings us to the other pair of words, allusion vs. illusion, which can be similarly examined, along with a third, elusion, which is sometimes grouped with this pair:

allusion – an indirect reference as when a writer hints at a well-known event, person, or quotation, assuming the reader will recognize it:

a literary allusion (Everyday Writer 299)

illusion – a false or misleading appearance (Everyday Writer 299):

an optical illusion (merriam-webster.com)

elusion: the noun form of elude, means evading or escaping:

his artful elusion of the worst work assignments (merriam-webster.com)

Although the verb form elude is commonly used, as in the criminal eluded capture, a related word delude, is common in both its verb and its noun form, delusion. It is this form that is sometimes confused with the word illusion. A delusion is internal, “a fixed belief, which can be either false or fanciful”: I was under the delusion that he intended to marry me. (collinsdictionary.com). Though the meanings of these words overlap somewhat, New Fowler’s elaborates: “Illusion denotes a false impression derived either from the external world (. . . a partition giving at least the illusion of privacy), or from faulty thinking (he thinks he will finish the book by the end of the year, but it may be an illusion)” (203). Despite their similar meanings, Garner’s asserts: “An illusion exists in one’s fancy or imagination. A delusion is an idea or thing that deceives or misleads a person. Delusions are dangerously wrong apprehensions; illusions are also wrong perceptions, but the connotation is far less dire” (427).

By the way, uses of the verb illude are either obsolete or archaic according to dictionaries and usage experts. However, the similarities in these words, namely the root word –lude, is derived from the Latin ludere “to play,” and all these words, Mahoney and others (livejournal.com; writingexplained.com) point out, “have an element of word play to them.” This chart maps out the etymology Mahoney presents.

 

Latin word

prefix

root

 

allude,

allusion

“alludere” (to play beside)

“al-” (toward)

+ “ludere” (to play)

to refer to casually

delude,

delusion

“deludere”

(to play false)

“de-” (down)

+ “ludere” (to play)

to mislead the judgment or mind of

elude,

elusion

“eludere” (to evade or deceive)

“e-” (out of, from, or beyond)

+ “ludere” (to play)

to escape in a clever manner

illude,

illusion

“illudere”

(to ridicule or mock)

 “il-” (in)

+ “ludere” (to play)

to trick or deceive

(italics indicate rare or obsolete)

                                         (adapted from kirkmahoney.com)

As you search for the appropriate word to express your story or argument, recognizing these commonly confused words is important since choosing the incorrect word will not only confuse your reader and confound your meaning, but it may also lessen your authority as a writer. If you find yourself hesitating over which of the confusing pairs (allude vs. delude) or even triplets to use (allusion vs. delusion vs. delusion), remember that though they share a root word (lude), it is the prefix that shapes its meaning and that should be pronounced to prevent confusion. If in doubt, consult a dictionary, and make use of helpful suggests for differentiating the words. For instance, writingexplained.com suggests these tips to remember the difference between one pair:

Allude starts with an and so does Absent. Since to allude is to make an indirect reference, a direct reference is absent.

Elude starts with an and so does Escape. To elude is to escape.

FYI: Sometimes, elide is confused with one of these words. However, it is by far the most uncommon. Though sources give different dates for the appearance of the word elide, they do agree that it began as a legal term meaning “to annul” in the Middle Ages. They also cite its source in the Latin word laedere “to strike” or “to dash.” (Compare with collide.)  The prefix e- (< ex- “out”) creates the Latin word elidere, meaning “to crush or strike out.” In contemporary usage, elide can mean to “join together or merge” (lexico.com). It can also mean “slurring over a sound or part of a word” (phonologically), which is apt since, as mentioned above, many of the words in this post may be confused because the closeness in sound of the initial vowel when spoken. (etymonline.com) A way to keep its distinct meaning in mind is to remember it’s very close to slide, and when you elide things, you slide them together. (livejournal.com)

(Material derived and adapted from various sources, including lexico.com on allude and elude and elide, kirkmahoney.com, livejournal.com, writingexplained.com, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The Everyday Writer, merriam-webster.com, collinsdictionary.com, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, etymonline.com.)

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