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Enquire vs. inquire

Enquire and inquire are often just different spellings of the same word. Where the two are used for the same purposes, inquire is the more common form. This extends to derivative words (inquiryinquirer, etc.), and it is the case throughout the English speaking-world.

There is one qualification to this. Some Britons make the distinction that enquire and its derivatives apply to informal queries, and inquire and its derivatives to formal investigations. While this distinction appears widely borne out in more carefully written British texts, it is less pronounced in more informal types of writing (some news websites, some blogs, web comments).

Examples

At least one job-seeker called Bannon the next morning to politely inquire if he had, indeed, taken the resumes with him. [The Connecticut Mirror]

Gratl told the inquiry earlier that the federal government’s application is too broad. [Vancouver Sun]

A criminal inquiry into phone-hacking at the News of the World could be reopened and staff prosecuted following legal action by some of its alleged victims. [Guardian]

Talks not serious, but Rockies inquire about Rangers all-star Young [Denver Post]

One of the vintner’s shareholders sought to inquire about a wallaby pictured among the vine. [Sydney Morning Herald]

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Comments

  1. TruthOrDare says:

    This article is really inaccurate.  One is NOT preferred over the other at all.  The spelling
    with ‘e’ is British while the spelling with ‘i’ is North American.  As with many other words, it comes down to a difference in spelling between the two.  However, in my case,  I live in the caribbean and we use “enquire” frequently on an unofficial/informal level, but only use “inquire” when speaking about something on an official/formal level. So it more or less depends on your locale’s command of English.*FYI: The ‘american’ version of english words are not to be automatically assumed to be the preferred choice.

    • Grammarist says:

      Hello. Thank you for your comment. It reminded us that this post did need a little cleaning up. However, we disagree with your argument that “enquire” is preferred outside North America, at least in current news publications.

      Let’s look at a few major British publications. Google News searches for the year of 2011 show these results:

      The Guardian: 4 results for “enquire,” 9 for “inquire.” 22 results for “enquiry,” 340 for “inquiry.”
      The Telegraph: 4 results for “enquire,” 28 for “inquire.” 37 results for “enquiry,” 1,050 for “inquiry.”
      Financial Times (usually extremely British in its spellings): 0 results for “enquire,” 2 for “inquire.” 4 results for “enquiry,” 48 for “inquiry.” 

      Anyone can recreate these results. And just for fun, we did some Google News archive searches to see if the “inquiry” preference is a new thing. For the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Financial Times, in a search covering January 1, 1950 to November 3, 2011, we fine 51 results for “enquire,” 246 for “inquire,” 465 for “enquiry,” and 17,800 for “inquiry.”

      So this post is not inaccurate. And if you look around our site a little, you’ll see that a large number of our posts are about delineating the differences between British and American English, so we are well aware that one dialectal spelling isn’t automatically preferred over others.

      • American Observer says:

        It is far more likely that your “statistics” actually reflect the propensity of news publications to report formal investigations. Rather than casual enquiries, such formal proceedings are much more newsworthy.

        A useful statistic would exclude all references to formal inquiries and look at only those references to informal queries.

        • Are you suggesting that “inquiry” refers to formal investigations and “enquiry” to informal queries? The commenter below suggests the same. That would be interesting and would obviously call for a revision to this post, but we’re not seeing that pattern. Let us know if you can point us toward any good resources on this.

  2. Jasperawakens says:

    In Australia we tend to go the traditional (British) way. Enquire is to ask, Inquire (as in Inquiry) is more formal, like asking a question).

  3. JackandJill says:

    The context in which either of the two words were used is missing from your analysis of the frequency of use (occurrence).

    I will ague that if the contexts were considered, you would notice that there is a pattern, i.e. Inquiry used in the formal/legal context and enquiry more in a more informal setting.

    Let the debate begin.

    • Grammarist says:

      As we noted above, that would be interesting, but nothing that we’ve seen indicates there is a pattern. If you search publications from outside North America, “inquire” and its derivatives are far more common than “enquire” and its derivatives for all sense of the word in both formal and informal contexts. With the small number of instances of “enquire,” etc. that we find, some are formal/legal and some are not.

      We would love to have our analysis proven incorrect (we’re not emotionally invested either way), but we’re just not seeing that pattern, at least in news publications. We would be grateful to anyone who could point us to a good source of information.

    • Grammarist says:

      We added a paragraph (the second one) to address these suggestions.

  4. Paisleyx says:

    Never start a sentence with “but”!

  5. I never do, but.

  6. Alan Duncan says:

    ” that enquire and its derivatives apply to informal queries, and inquire and its derivatives to formal investigations”. This is the way i have always applied each word (i’m from the UK).
    It’s strange because whenever i reply to a customer email, i thank them for their “enquiry” and it throws up a spell check error. That’s what brought me here!

    I think i’ll continue to use this version.

    • Robert Foster says:

      Yes … but Isn’t a Commission on Enquiry a formal government initiated investigation into a set of circumstances in order to determine the true facts of a situation? So why is it spelt “Enquiry” seeing that it’s a formal undertaking?

    • Paul Putter says:

      Well, Jane Austen, who was English, last time I checked, seems to use both forms with the same meaning. See “Sense and Sensibility.”

  7. I am British and also make the same distinctions. This was how I was taught at school.

  8. haybayroofy says:

    Ya but. no but, ya but, no but ya. (little britain)

  9. Apickerofnits says:

    What are “purproses?” ;-)

  10. “Some Britons”? No, all Britons who are using the words correctly.

  11. DOCTOR_NlCK says:

    Hi Everybody!

  12. Heather says:

    Sorry, I wouldn’t say “inquiry” is at all the more common form. I’m Australian, and for me it’s always been “enquiry” for all cases except in the case you note where there’s an official investigation. I think “inquire” is only common if you happen to be American. Sorry, but not all of us have bastardised our English to that extent (yet). :)

    • It'sCalledEnglishForAReason says:

      Thank you Heather, I’m so sick of American computer programs and web sites constantly “correcting” my English to some horrible bastardisation (oops, sorry *bastardization). And why is it so hard to make Microsoft Word accept British English as the default! That’s who invented it in the first place! There is a world outside the USA, people.

      • shocked911 says:

        It’s a shame that when you install an ‘English’ language version of a programme you still get weird American spellings in the requesters, pop-ups, tips and help. Perhaps too much to ask though…

        • At least these days it’s more often English (US). Even though you’re usually unable to change it from that to a variation of English, I prefer that they are acknowledging the specific flavour of the language they’ve chosen. Only us Brits are allowed to get away with English and not have to put (British) as we’re the real McCoy.

    • I completely agree with you, I don’t believe they are synonymous. In the UK we have the following distinctions:

      Inquiry – an examination of facts e.g. we made inquiries of all those who were present.
      Enquiry – a search for knowledge e.g. the study deserves more enquiry than it has received.

      In my experience the word enquiry is used far, far, far more often than inquiry. This would tally with their definitions as we make enquiries far more than we make inquiries!

    • Sarah Warren says:

      “Where the two are used for the same purposes, inquire is the more common form.”

      Note ‘where the two are used for the same purposes’ – that’s specific. In some varieties of English they have distinct meanings, in which case enquire is the more common because inquire has a more specific meaning. But given the statement was qualified with ‘where the two are used for the same purpose’, you’re assuming a generalisation that wasn’t made.

  13. danton steele says:

    Lana Del Ray said Nothing scares me anymore. Shes a drunk driver…or she wants a Driver.

  14. Bambi-Jade Dallas says:

    I always us coos poos pita patta poo bag!

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