Half-mast vs. half-staff

In American English, a flag flown halfway up its flagpole as a symbol of mourning is at half-staff, and a flag flown halfway up a ship’s mast to signal mourning or distress is at half-mast. The distinction does not run deep, though, as the terms are often mixed up, especially in unofficial contexts.


Outside North America, half-staff is not a widely used term, and half-mast is used in reference to half-raised flags both on land and at sea. Half-mast is also preferred in Canada for both uses, though half-staff appears more frequently there than it does outside North America. 


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  1. This may arguably be the case in modern American English.  In the rest of the English-speaking world “half mast” (no hyphen) is the one-and-only correct term; “half-staff” probably won’t even recognized at all, except in Canada.  Since the last two sources you quote (and I don’t know about “Hardball Times”) are not American, it’s hardly surprising that they not use the weird American term.

    • Interesting point. Honestly, that “half-staff” might be an American term didn’t even occur to us, but a couple of quick searches of British publications show that you’re absolutely right. We’ll consider adding a note about this in our next edit. 

  2. While I see the point here I must say that I feel whether this is an American term or not has no bearing. In the United States the correct term for flying a flag, on land, and half-way down the flagpole IS “half-staff”. So here in the United States when we learn about correct flag etiquette it should be taught that way. Furthermore, a mast is directly defined as “A tall upright post, spar, or other structure on a ship or boat, in sailing vessels generally carrying a sail or sails.” Therefore, it isn’t being used in the right context when “half-mast” is used when referring to a flag on land.

  3. Francis Zanger says:

    Technically, the flag is flown halfway *down* the staff or mast– by U.S. Naval tradition (and who has more tradition than the Navy?) the flag is always raised all the way to the top, then lowered half-way; at sunset it is raised again to the top of the staff, them lowered.

    There’s probably even a good reason for this, which I doubt anyone remembers.

    • DRDutra says:

      Half-masting dates back to the 17th century when sailors used to lower the flag to honor deceased sea captains. Today, death of a principal U.S. government official, foreign dignitary, military members or civil servants are common reasons. Half-mast at sea, half-staff on land.

  4. The same protocol is observed in Australia. If a flag is to be flown at half-mast, it is first raised to the top of the pole and then lowered, and the same occurs when the flag is lowered. I think the basis for that is to make clear the half-masting is as a mark of respect, not because the particular flag has been raised in a lackadaisical manner. Strictly, in flag protocol, when a flag is half-masted (or half-staffed in the US), it is lowered only as much as the hoist, or the width – it is not actually lowered half way down the pole (though one often sees that). Again, I suspect that protocol is to emphasise that the act of lowering the flag is a conscious one of respect.

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