You see that chicken at the top of this post? It could very well be foul, but “fowl” is probably the word that you want to use to describe our delicious feathered friend.

For better or for worse, there are many words in the English language that sound exactly the same, but they are spelled differently and have entirely different meanings. One such pairing is “foul” and “fowl.” They differ by just one letter, but you should make a clear distinction between the two.

A Murder Most Foul

The word “foul” has several definitions, but most of these have a negative connotation. If something is gross, disgusting or repulsive in some way, you could describe it as “foul.” This is oftentimes used in the context of smell, as in “Rick has really foul body odor.” Along these same lines, “foul” could describe something that is bad, wrong or immoral.

The movie Kick-Ass was filled with foul language, meaning that it had swearing and coarse language. You might also remember in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when the ghost comments on the “murder most foul.” This is meant to say that the murder was wicked or evil in some way.

Foul can also be used as a verb, taking on a similar kind of meaning. If a factory dumped its industrial waste into the neighboring river, you could say that the company “fouled” the water.

In the context of sports, a “foul” is akin to some sort of penalty or invalid play. A foul ball in baseball is one that is hit outside of the valid field of play. In basketball, if a defensive player interferes with the offensive player in a manner that is not allowed, then the defensive player has committed a foul and the offensive player might then get to shoot a “foul shot,” more commonly called a “free throw.”

Generally speaking, “foul” is a bad thing.

The Bird Is the Word

By contrast, “fowl” is a term with a simpler meaning and fewer possible definitions. Most commonly, “fowl” refer to birds that are used for food. This could be for the eggs, for the meat or for both. We’d usually think of fowl from a domestic context, like how a farm would raise turkeys and ducks that are then sold at the market, but you could also use fowl to refer to wild birds, like waterfowl. In this case, you may not necessarily be thinking of the birds in the context of food.

Extending this feathery line of thought, “fowl” can also be used to describe the flesh of the corresponding birds. You might find coq au vin, a traditional French chicken dish, under the “fowl” section on some menus. Chicken is the most typical fowl that we consume, but this extends to pheasants, geese, and so forth. In some sense, you can almost use “fowl” interchangeably with “poultry,” but that isn’t always the case and it isn’t always appropriate.

Interestingly, the plural form of “fowl” is both “fowl” and “fowls.” If you are referring to the group of birds as a single collective, you would use “fowl.” For example, you could say that you are going out to hunt fowl. If you are referring to the birds as a group of individuals, then you would use “fowls.” This can come off sounding a little strange, though, as in “Jane collected six fowl from the barn.”

Hatching a Plan

One trick that you could use to remember the difference between these two words is that “fowl” contains the word “owl,” which is a bird (though not really considered “fowl” itself). Of course, if you find some particularly rancid chicken at the supermarket, you could say that they are stocking some really foul fowl.

Is there a particular grammar topic that you would like to see explained or discussed in a future blog post? Don’t hesitate to post a comment below and I’ll add it to the queue.