Word Choice: Elicit vs. Illicit
  • 2-minute read
  • 28th March 2016

Word Choice: Elicit vs. Illicit

Some words sound so alike you’d struggle to hear the difference, even when they’re obviously distinct on paper. Understandably, it’s easy to get such words confused.

For example, “elicit” and “illicit” are similarly pronounced; however, they diverge significantly in spelling and meaning, so you wouldn’t want to mix them up in your written work.

But what exactly is the difference? And how should these terms be used?

Elicit (Draw Out or Evoke)

The term “elicit” is a verb meaning “to draw forth or bring out” and often used when something is done to provoke a reaction or obtain information:

At first he ignored me, but a few probing questions eventually elicited an answer.

Usually, “elicit” is reserved for deliberate attempts to gain a response, but it can simply describe being affected by something:

The death of her childhood hero elicited an emotional response.

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Illicit (Illegal or Forbidden)

Something “illicit” is either illegal or counter to society’s moral standards:

Until recently, Cuban cigars were an illicit tobacco product.

Although Ted and Diane were happily married to other people, they could not deny their illicit love.

Note the second sentence above is merely something of which society disapproves (an extramarital affair) rather than something illegal.

Elicit or Illicit?

As you can see, these terms have very little in common beyond the way they sound when spoken. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to say something “illicited a response” or to refer to stolen goods as “elicit items”!

Luckily, since “illicit” is a synonym for “illegal” and both start with “ill-,” it’s pretty easy to remember which word to use in any given situation:

  • Is what you’re describing against the law or forbidden? If so, use the adjective “illicit”;
  • Are you describing something that has provoked a response? If so, use the verb “elicit.”

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