Word Choice: Pray vs. Prey

Pray vs. Prey

The mantis is an interesting creature: it looks like it’s praying, but it’s really preying. Not sure of the difference between those activities? That’s okay. The words ‘pray’ and ‘prey’ sound identical, so it’s easy to get them mixed up in writing. But we’ve prepared this quick guide to clear things up.

Please do not let the alien-looking killer insect thing distract you from the important topic of spelling.
Please do not let the alien-looking killer insect thing distract you from the important topic of spelling.
(Photo: ElinaElena)

Pray (Appeal to God)

The word ‘pray’ is always a verb. Typically, it means ‘appeal to a god or another object of worship’. For example, we might say:

The priest prayed for the health of her congregation.

Here, we use ‘prayed’ to mean ‘asked God for something’. But we can use it less literally to mean ‘ask or hope fervently for something’. For instance:

We’ve organised a barbecue, so we’re praying for sunshine tomorrow.

In this case, the speaker is still asking for something. But ‘praying for sunshine’ is more likely to be a figurative expression of hope for clement weather than a literal appeal for divine intervention.

Prey (Hunt or Victimise)

‘Prey’ can be either a verb or a noun. As a verb, its main meaning is ‘act like a predator’. Usually, this refers to an animal hunting and killing something for food (i.e. predation). We can return to our insect friend here:

The mantis preys on smaller insects, including spiders.

More figuratively, we can use ‘prey’ to mean ‘victimise’ or ‘exploit’:

Phone scammers often prey on the elderly.

Here, we’re not saying that phone scammers kill and eat the elderly. Rather, ‘prey on’ in this context means ‘target due to their perceived vulnerability’.

As a noun, meanwhile, ‘prey’ refers to the object of predation (i.e. the thing being preyed on). This applies in both the literal and figurative senses of predation set out above. For example:

Rabbits are frequently prey for hawks and eagles.

The mugger stalked his prey through the dark streets.

In all cases, though, the word ‘prey’ is related to predatory behaviour.

Summary: Pray or Prey?

Although these words sound the same, they’re very distinct in meaning:

  • To pray is to make an appeal to a god or an object of worship. In a non-religious context, ‘pray’ can also mean ‘hope for something very much’.
  • As a verb, prey means to hunt and kill something (usually for food), although it can mean ‘victimise’ more generally. As a noun, ‘prey’ is the subject of predatory behaviour (i.e. the thing that is hunted).

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