Word Choice: Key vs. Quay
  • 3-minute read
  • 23rd January 2021

Word Choice: Key vs. Quay

The words “key” and “quay” sound the same. But while “key” has many meanings in English, “quay” should only be used in one situation. To make sure you don’t get these words mixed up in your writing, check out our advice below.

The Many Uses of the Word “Key”

While it is a simple three-letter word, “key” actually has a lot of meanings and uses in English. Even as a noun, for example, it can refer to:

  • Something used to open a lock (e.g., He turned the key in the door)
  • Part of a device that you press with your fingers, such as on a computer keyboard or piano (e.g., Her fingers danced across the keys as she played)
  • A set of musical notes (e.g., The song is in the key of G).
  • An important or deciding factor (e.g., The key to her brilliance is imagination)
  • Something that gives a solution (e.g., He checked the key for the test answers)

As a verb, meanwhile, “key” has a handful of common uses, including:

  • Damage a car with a key (e.g., He wanted to key his boss’s car for revenge)
  • Use a keyboard or keypad (e.g., She keyed the code into the machine)
  • Plan something for a specific situation (e.g., It is keyed to your needs)

It is also commonly used as an adjective meaning “of crucial importance”:

The key aspect of the plan is timing.

His key argument fell to pieces under scrutiny.

For all of these uses, though, the correct spelling is always “key.”

A set of keys.
A set of keys.

Quay (A Landing Place for Ships)

Thankfully, “quay” is a bit simpler! It is always a noun. And it always refers to a structure by a body of water that ships use for loading and unloading:

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The quay is always busy on a Monday morning.

Moored in the quay, the ship was safe from the storm.

I like to take a walk along the quay on sunny days.

Some people use the term “wharf” to refer to the same kind of structure.

Summary: Key or Quay?

While these words sound similar, they have very different meanings:

  • Key has many uses as a noun (e.g., a device for opening a lock, part of a keyboard), a verb (e.g., “enter via a keyboard” or “damage with a key”), and as an adjective meaning “of crucial importance.” All use the spelling “key.”
  • Quay is only ever a noun and refers to a landing place by a body of water where ships can load and unload cargo or passengers.

Remembering every definition of “key” might be difficult. But as long as you know that a “quay” is a landing place for boats, you can use “key” in all other cases.

And if you want to be sure your writing is error free, our proofreaders can help. Sign up for a trial proofread today and get your first 500 words checked for free.

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