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Defuse or Diffuse? Don’t Let the Wrong One Bomb Your Work

A hand holding a round black bomb with a fuse123RF

Let’s consider another pair of homophones to determine whether the right word for your writing would be defuse or diffuse.

I’m enough of a grammar nerd to follow people who appreciate good grammar on social media. One of those folks I follow is Dave Nelson, a copyeditor, proofreader, and deputy editorial manager. Nelson recently posted on X and on BlueSky about a case of confusion over whether to use defuse or diffuse.

“My local newspaper says police ‘attempted to diffuse the situation,’” he wrote.

You’ve surely heard the phrase before, right? Law enforcement seems to like using it. In fact, I signed into my work email at the newsroom and searched for the phrase. I found two instances of references to “diffuse the situation” in two different releases. Both came from the same law enforcement agency.

I won’t say which one.

In any case, I suppose I’ll have to check those stories to see if we missed the incorrect word if we used that phrasing. I notice that Grammarly, which tends to be pretty good at catching these things, did not give me the typical red line under diffuse.

The two words are examples of homophones — words that sound the same but that are sometimes spelled differently and have different meanings.

When you’re dealing with the spoken word, it doesn’t matter because you generally don’t see the words spelled out. But as soon as you sit down with pencil and paper or at a keyboard, that’s where they’ll cause you potential embarrassment.

Defuse or diffuse? Which is the right choice when you want to ‘de-escalate’?

As Dave points out in his post, they most likely meant to say “defuse the situation.”

When I check the trusty Merriam-Webster, I find the verb defuse has two meanings:

  1. To remove the fuse from (a mine, a bomb. etc.)
  2. To make less harmful, potent, or tense

For that second definition, it even gave the example, “defuse a crisis.”

The verb diffuse, means something very different. Its most common usage has three meanings:

  1. to pour out and permit or cause to spread freely
  2. To extend, scatter
  3. To spread thinly or wastefully

None of those definitions truly fits the meaning the word would need to be able to be used when referring to efforts to calm a tense situation.

So Nelson is right: you defuse a volatile scene.

This is one that surprises me because it never even dawned on me that defuse was a separate word. I always assumed — probably because official sources like law enforcement agencies — get it wrong often enough that I never thought to look it up.

Isn’t it fascinating how one little post like his can make you wonder how many other mistakes you’ve made while being blissfully ignorant?!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.