Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It was a grizzled night for the man with the grisly beard when he stumbled upon an angry grizzly bear in the woods. Nope, that’s not right at all. While we don’t encounter problems with these words nearly as often as we do with there, their and they’re or queue and cue, it’s still important to know the difference between grisly, grizzly and grizzled if you want to use the right word with the right meaning at the right time. So, which one is the subspecies of brown bear?

Grisly is an adjective describing something that causes a sense of fear or horror. Remember the thing that is “grisly” is the one that is causing or eliciting feelings of great dread or horror; it is not the thing (or person) who is feeling terrified or scared. You might read into the grisly details of the crimes committed by Charles Manson, for example.

Grizzly is the word you want to use when you’re talking about the bear in the forest. Grizzly bears are the subspecies of brown bear, but the term “grizzly” existed before these bears were discovered. The origin (and alternate meaning) of the word is to describe something or someone with grey hair. Yes, this is confusing, but it’s because early explorers presumably encountered grizzly bears that were more greyish in appearance. Go figure.

To further add to the confusion, “gris” is the French word for “grey” and this might lead you back to the word “grisly” instead of “grizzly” in this context. It’s also the same word in Spanish. The assumption is that the word “grizzly” was born out of an anglicization of these terms.

Grizzled has a very similar meaning as “grizzly” and is the word more commonly used when describing someone’s hair or beard. It could work with animals too. If you say that your dog has a “grizzled” appearance, then you are likely saying that her coat is streaked with grey fur. A man with salt-and-pepper hair could be said to have a grizzled look too.

Going back to the original sentence at the top, it should be corrected thusly: It was a grisly night for the man with the grizzled beard when he stumbled upon an angry grizzly bear in the woods. And if you’re wondering what you should do if you encounter a grizzly bear yourself, don’t make any sudden movements. Instead, make yourself look big, speak in a calm voice and back away slowly. Don’t run or make eye contact. Running would be bad.