Foul vs. fowl

Fowl refers to birds, especially chickens and game birds. It has no non-bird-related definitions. Foul has many definitions, including (1) offensive to the senses, (2) morally detestable, (3) a violation of rules of play, (4) to make dirty, and (5) to commit a violation against rules of play.

Foul is the correct spelling in the phrasal verb foul up (meaning mess up) and in the phrases foul play (meaning illegal activity); foul-mouthed (meaning tending to use offensive language); no harm, no foul (meaning no serious damage done); and cry foul (meaning to accuse someone of unfair practices or wrongdoing).

Examples

Fowl is occasionally used in place of foul, especially, for mysterious reasons, in the phrase cry foul—for example:

Gwyneth gets steamed! Star cries fowl over Times accusation that she used a cookbook ghostwriter [New York Daily News]

But the latter two have cried fowl, claiming Tolly refused to test products they say would have yielded different results. [TechNewsWorld]

Counties cry fowl over FL Medicaid legislation [WTXL.com]

The opposite error occurs as well, though examples such as this one are harder to find:

She gets as excited over the water foul as a puppy, barking at the geese, ducks and swans as if they would actually come play with her. [Livingston Daily]

When the subject involves birds, many writers can’t resist the bad pun, especially in titles—for example:

Crying fowl over tower plans [Reading Eagle]

Fowl discovery: Woman discovers white feather in the middle of her chicken nugget [Daily Mail]

Fowl play suspected in theft of giant chicken [Hamilton Spectator]

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