Foul vs. Fowl – Difference & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

There are many word pairs in the English language that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. These words are called homophones because they are pronounced exactly the same despite their differences.

Foul and fowl are excellent examples of homophones that cause confusion with both native speakers and English language learners. Since they also can be used to create puns or a play on words, this can create even further confusion for anyone new to the language.

To ensure that you use these works correctly, let’s review their definitions and see how they can be used to help your readers understand your writing.

What’s the Difference Between Foul and Fowl?

httpsgrammarist.comspellingfoul 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 Definition and Use

Foul is the correct spelling in the phrasal verbs 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).

For example:

  • She foul-mouthed the referee and was consequently kicked out of the tournament.

Foul is also an adjective to describe the unpleasant or offensive to the senses. If you want to describe something that smells unpleasant, you would say it smells foul or has a foul smell.

For example:

  • The smell was so foul you couldn’t walk through the room without gagging.

The same goes for if you want to highlight a situation that metaphorically “stinks” or is unpleasant.

For example:

  • She rolled her eyes, exclaiming, “That final exam was SO foul! There is no way it will help my semester grade.”

Foul can serve as a noun as well to mean an action that works against the rules. It is commonly used in sports.

For example:

  • The foul called on the player kept the team from advancing as a whole, and they lost their chance to win the bracket.

Fowl Definition and Use

Fowl is a noun and is used to explain any type of domestic bird or wild bird. It can be used as a stand-alone word or as part of a compound word such as waterfowl, wildfowl, or barn fowl.

For example:

  • Check the backfield to see if any fowl have landed in the cut grains; we might be able to get one for dinner.

How to Use Foul and Fowl in Sentences

Foul and fowl are easy to confuse, but you can easily discern one from the other if you can remember that fowl is another word for bird. A tip to always remember is to notice that the word owl is located within the word fowl. Owls are a type of bird.

Since fowl is a noun, you can use it to replace bird names or general references to birds.

For example:

  • She was fascinated by all the fowl at the zoo and spent an hour feeding them from her hand.

Foul is definitely the more versatile word of the two and can be used in a much more descriptive manner.

For example:

  • That was a caught foul ball, and the umpire must be blind to have missed it.
  • This entire season is foul. I really wish they would follow the author’s original canon when putting it on television.

However, fowl is regularly used to replace foul as a pun.

For example:

  • Crying Fowl: The Geese That Delayed Saturday Night’s Game
  • Well, she fowled that one up when she left the chicken coop open, and the fox got in.

Let’s Review

Even though fowl and foul are homophones and sound the same, they have very different meanings. Fowl is easy to remember as another word for a bird since the word owl is part of its spelling.

Foul is used more often due to its descriptive nature when it is used as an adjective to detail something that smells bad or is in poor taste. Foul can also be a noun when used as a foul, or poor conduct, usually in sports.