Inquire Vs. Enquire

Can I inquire about your inquiry?

English-speaking countries around the world spell most words similarly. But there are a few American spelling differences that we’re all familiar with, such as -or/-our (American color, British colour) and -er/-re (American center, British centre). However, one difference that many people have trouble remembering (myself included) is inquire/enquire. Which is British and which is American? Do they have the same meaning? What about the noun forms? Even though these words are quite formal (and therefore well-suited to a Business English or test-prep class), any English language learner would benefit from a refresher on which spelling to use in what country.

Verb Form: Inquire Vs. Enquire

Inquire, Inquired, Inquiring Enquire, Enquired, Enquiring
More common in… American & Canadian English British English
Use in… US & Canada other English-speaking countries

Do the verbs inquire/enquire have the same meaning? The short answer is “yes.” They both are a formal way of saying “ask about” or “investigate” something. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (US), for example, lists both definitions under inquire. However, the traditional distinction is that enquire is used for “ask” and inquire is used for “investigate,” so it is possible to see both forms used in the same country. Confused yet? My advice is to tell most students to stick with inquire in the US/Canada and enquire elsewhere, and only discuss the other possibility with higher-level students.

Noun Form: Inquiry Vs. Enquiry

Inquiry, Inquiries Enquiry, Enquiries
More common in… American & Canadian English British English
Use in… US & Canada other English-speaking countries

Do the nouns inquiry/enquiry have the same meaning? Like the verb forms, both noun forms are formal and refer to “asking for information” or “an investigation.” American and Canadian English use inquiry for both meanings, whereas British English prefers enquiry for “asking for information” and inquiry for “an investigation.”

Pronunciation

What about pronunciation? Do inquire and enquire sound different? When you’re speaking at a natural pace, they sound exactly the same. This is because unstressed vowels in English are pronounced with a schwa sound (/ə/, the sound in “the”).

Word Pronunciation
inquire /ˌən ˈkwaɪr/
inquiry /ən ˈkwaɪ ˌri/
enquire /ˌən ˈkwaɪr/
enquiry /ən ˈkwaɪ ˌri/

However, when speaking slowly or enunciating carefully (or pronouncing the noun with the stress on the first syllable), you will hear the difference.

Word Pronunciation Note
inquire /ˌɪn ˈkwaɪr/ /ɪ/ is the sound in “tin”
inquiry /ˌɪn ˈkwaɪ ri/ or /ˈɪn kwə ˌri/
enquire /ˌɛn ˈkwaɪr/ /ɛ/ is the sound in “ten”
enquiry /ˌɛn ˈkwaɪ ˌri/ or /ˈɛn kwə ˌri/

Do I tell my students all of this? You bet! Students generally speak slowly when they’re learning another language, so they should learn to pronounce these words differently. But my students are always excited to try speaking quickly, so get them to try pronouncing these words with the schwa, too. It’s also important for them to realize that when they hear a native speaker saying these words, both terms will probably sound the same.

A note on the pronunciation of the noun form: Do you place the stress on the first or second syllable? In the US and Canada, both are possible. In fact, Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online (US) lists five different possible pronunciations! The Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English lists the two mentioned above. Oxford Dictionaries Online lists only the stress on the second syllable in their British & World English dictionary. We’d love to hear from fellow teachers around the world in our comments section: Where are you, and how do you pronounce inquiry/enquiry?

Practice

Challenge your students by writing this on the board: “Can I inquire about your enquiry?” See if they can tell you what’s wrong. (Answer: You shouldn’t mix American and British spellings together. Choose one or the other, depending on where you live. In the US, use “Can I inquire about your inquiry?” In other English-speaking countries, use “Can I enquire about your enquiry?”

You’ll find the words inquire and inquiry used throughout our NEW Writing lesson: How to Write a Business Letter. Try it with your class!

3 comments

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  1. Tanya Trusler says:

    Dec 11, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Wondering about Canadian spelling? Though we officially follow British spelling in most cases, we tend to be easily influenced by our neighbours to the south. And this is one case, according to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, when the American spelling is more common in Canada. Canadians prefer inquire/inquiry to enquire/enquiry.

    Reply

  2. Tara Benwell says:

    Dec 11, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you for responding to my inquiry!

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 11, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      No problem, Tara. Thanks for inquiring about this! ;)

      Reply

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