“Elicit” vs. “Illicit”: What’s the Difference?
What happens when two words (almost) sound the same but have very different meanings? They elicit lots of confusion among writers!
In short, "elicit" is a verb that means to draw out or evoke, while "illicit" is an adjective that means illegal or unlawful.
Let’s dive deeper into the definitions of elicit and illicit, and discover a memory trick so you never confuse the two words again.
“Elicit”: Definition and examples
When you elicit a response or reaction from someone, you evoke or provoke it. The response can be abstract or intangible, like an emotion, or something more concrete, like facts or information.
For instance, you could say that John’s untimely passing elicited an outpouring of sympathy from his neighbors and friends.
Or consider Detective Stephens, who interrogated a suspected robber for hours, asking the same question over and over again in an effort to elicit a confession.
“Illicit”: Definition and examples
Things that are illicit aren’t permitted or allowed. Although illicit usually refers to illegal goods or activities, it can also describe behavior that is morally questionable or socially taboo.
For instance, think about Dave, who is worried that his wife will discover the illicit love affair he’s having with his coworker Christina.
Or maybe you spent your quarantine watching Joe Exotic duke it out with Carole Baskin:
“It’s been virtually impossible lately to avoid the freakish, peer-through-the-fingers world of Tiger King. The seven-part docuseries about the illicit world of private zoos and big-cat breeders debuted amid the COVID-19 lockdown.” - The Hollywood Reporter, 01 Apr. 2020
Origin of the words “elicit” and “illicit”
Both elicit and illicit have Latin roots - although different ones. The Latin verb elicere means “drawn out by trickery or magic” and is built on the combination of the prefix ex- (meaning “out”) and the verb lacere, which means “entice, deceive”. Meanwhile, illicit comes from the prefix i- (meaning “not”) plus the Latin word licitus, which means “allowed, permitted”.
How do you remember the difference between the two?
Elicit and illicit are near-homophones, meaning that they are pronounced almost the same. This explains the confusion for many contemporary English speakers.
A good memory trick when deciding between elicit and illicit is to think about their most common synonyms. Remember that both illicit and its synonym illegal start with the letters “ill”. Similarly, both elicit and its synonym evoke start with the letter “e”.
Remembering which part of speech you’re using also helps. Because elicit is a verb, it’s used in various forms and tenses (e.g., elicits, elicited or eliciting). But since illicit is an adjective — just like green, tall or smart — you’ll never see it written as a verb. If you find yourself mistakenly writing “illicits”, “illicited” or “illiciting”, just swap the “il-” with an “e-”.
In a nutshell
To recap, the definition of elicit is “to evoke” and the definition of illicit is “illegal”.
Now that you know the difference between these commonly-confused words, put your knowledge to the test.
Take a little practice quiz: “Elicit” vs. “Illicit”
Joe was disappointed that his grand declaration of love _____ a polite “thank you” from Diana. (elicited/illicited)
The criminal was arrested for smuggling _______ cigarettes across state borders. (elicit/illicit)
The teacher’s silly song and dance usually _______ laughs from the students, but today they ______ groans. (elicit/illicit, elicited/illicited)
Quiz answers: 1) elicited 2) illicit 3) elicit, elicited
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Mayrav Weiss, UX writer at Wix
She likes pottery, tropical plants, and exploring Tel Aviv by bike.