Learn the Difference between Populace and Populous

by Tina Blue
Oct. 24, 2003

Just when I think I have covered enough of the problematic words that come in confusing pairs, I find myself bumping up against another pair that makes me wince.

Recently, for example, I felt compelled to instruct people about the difference between suffering and suffrage ("Suffrage Good; Suffering Bad").  I frequent a number of political websites, and those two words are often confused on such sites, so that otherwise well-meaning people end up complaining about the "suffrage" of the oppressed peoples, or insisting that we have to end "suffrage" in any number of unfortunate countries.

Well, there's another pair of words that people who agree with me politically cannot seem to get right.  (I don't know about people who don't agree with me politically, since most of the websites I hang out at are ones oriented toward my own progressive politics.  If people on the opposite end of the political spectrum want to get their words straight, they can either come to this website for instruction, or they can find their own usage specialist to correct their errors.)

The words in question are populace and populous.  Judging from the frequency of the error, hardly anyone alive today is even aware that such a word as "populace" exists.  Here is a typical posting from one of my favorite websites:

. . . these brainwashed 'murricans believe that we still live in an optional-democratic political system that allows good things to happen to a disengaged, disconnected populous.

The proper word, of course, is "populace."  "Populace" is a noun, and "populous" is an adjective.  A densely populated place, or a place with a lot of people, is a populous city, state, or country.  The people who live there are the populace of that city, state, or country.

The category of people who regularly misuse these words--or who only use the one word, "populous," to serve both functions--is a populous category.  I appeal to the populace, at least to that part of the populace that reads the articles on this website, to help me stamp out the misuse of these words.

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