Word Choice: Steal vs. Steel

Word Choice Steal vs. Steel

Like many homophones, ‘steal’ and ‘steel’ sound the same yet differ in meaning. But these terms can be extra tricky, as both have noun and verb uses. So to make sure you always use the right word in the right place, check out our guide to the differences between ‘steal’ and ‘steel’.

Steal (Take Without Permission)

‘Steal’ is primarily a verb (i.e. an action word). Its main use is to mean ‘take and keep something without the permission of the owner’. For example, if someone had to resort to theft to feed themselves, we might say:

He was so poor he had to steal food to eat.

The simple past tense of ‘steal’ is ‘stole’, while the past participle is ‘stolen’.

A less common use of ‘steal’ as a verb is to mean ‘do something without being noticed’. For example, we could say something like:

She stole a glance at his notebook while he wasn’t looking.

In this context, ‘stole’ simply means that the glance was secretive.

As a noun, meanwhile, we use ‘steal’ to mean ‘something acquired at a very low price’. So if someone had bagged themselves a bargain, we might say:

That new TV you got in the sales was a complete steal!

This noun use of ‘steal’ is mostly informal formal, though, so it is much rarer.

Steel (Metal Made of Iron and Carbon)

As a noun, ‘steel’ usually refers to an alloy of iron and carbon. It is very hard and relatively cheap to make, so people use it for everything from cutlery and guitar strings to vehicles and major building projects.

The Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing is considered the largest steel structure in the world.
The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing is currently the largest steel structure in the world.

Drawing on the toughness of the metal, some people use ‘steel’ as a verb meaning ‘prepare yourself for something unpleasant or difficult’:

I need to steel myself before I hear the verdict.

The past tense of this verb usage of ‘steel’ is ‘steeled’, not ‘stole’ as above.

Summary: Steal or Steel?

While these words sound the same, they refer to different things:

  • Steal is mainly a verb meaning ‘take something without permission’, but it can also mean ‘do something without being noticed’. As a noun, it can mean ‘something acquired at a very low price’, but this is quite informal.
  • Steel is a noun for a strong metal made of iron and carbon. However, as a verb it can also mean ‘prepare yourself for something difficult’.

The fact both words have different uses can make these terms tricky. But if you can remember that steel wire often comes on a reel, you should be able to avoid mix-ups. And for extra confidence your spelling is always correct, we have expert proofreaders available 24/7.

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