Word Choice: Illicit vs. Elicit

Although they sound slightly different when spoken, it’s easy to mix up the words ‘illicit’ and ‘elicit’ if you aren’t sure of what each means. However, since these words are quite different in meaning, such errors are best avoided.

For example, one is a verb and the other an adjective, and they are used in very different contexts. Make sure to use the correct word in your writing.

Illicit (Forbidden)

The word ‘illicit’ is an adjective meaning forbidden, either by law or by custom. It would be used in a sentence like this:

Al Capone was engaged in illicit activities.

Here, for example, the word ‘illicit’ modifies the word ‘activities’ to indicate that Al Capone was breaking the law.

Although the word ‘illicit’ literally means ‘forbidden’ or ‘illegal’, it is also often associated with things that are seedy or clandestine. It is thus commonly found in terms such as, ‘illicit drugs’, ‘illicit sex’ or ‘illicit black-market goods’.

Elicit (Provoke)

‘Elicit’ is a verb meaning ‘provoke a response’. For example, one might try to elicit an answer by asking a question. You could also try to ‘elicit’ a smile or any other type of reaction from a person or group of people. It would be used in a sentence like this:

His joke elicited laughter from the audience.

Illicit or Elicit?

Since these terms have such different meanings, it’s important to distinguish between them. If you struggle to recall which is which, keep in mind that something ‘illicit’ is also often illegal, and both of these words start with the letter combination ‘ill-‘.

Remember, too, that ‘elicit’ is spelled with one ‘l’, but illicit is spelled with two.

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