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English Lesson 13: Correct Use of Roll and Role

June 7th, 2008

money-roll.jpgRecently I have been seeing the two homonyms roll and role used incorrectly on forums and message boards, so in this week’s lesson I will explain the distinctions in their meanings so that readers can avoid confusion. The word roll has many meanings - some dictionaries list more than twenty - and can be used as either a noun or a verb. In the interests of time and brevity, I will quickly review the most common, easily distinguished meanings here:

When used as a verb:

  • To move something forward along a surface by repeatedly turning it over or revolving it on its axis, as in rolling a ball across the floor or rolling a boulder down a hill.
  • To travel or move somewhere while on wheels, as in rolling down the street on a bicycle, scooter, skates, etc.
  • To wrap around into a cylindrical shape, as in “roll a cigarette” or “roll up the poster”.
  • To begin operation or movement, often used in media-related expressions such as “roll the cameras” or “roll the presses”.
  • To recur or move forward in time, as in “the days rolled along” or “January rolled around again”.
  • To lean or rock from side to side, usually used in reference to ships or airplanes.
  • To lay out, extend, or flatten something on a surface; one can roll out a ball of yarn, roll out some rope, or roll out a piece of dough.
  • In gambling or board games, to start a player’s turn by throwing one or more dice; used in the expression “roll the dice”.
  • To play a prank on or trick someone, as in “rick rolling“.

When used as a noun:

  • The act of rotating something around its axis or turning it over.
  • Something that is wound or coiled up into a cylindrical shape, such as a roll of toilet paper, a roll of tape, or a roll of cloth.
  • An official list of people’s names that belong to a certain group; a roster.
  • A small, rounded piece of bread, usually served as an accompaniment to a meal.
  • A maneuver in which an airplane makes a complete rotation about its longitudinal axis without changing direction or losing altitude.
  • In music, a series of short blows on a percussion instrument, as in a drum roll.
  • In gaming, a single throw of the dice.

For role, things are not nearly as complicated. There are only two commonly used meanings:

  • A character or part played by a performer; may be used in reference to movies, plays, or any other type of theatrical performance. It may also refer to certain types of gaming (RPG is an acronym for role-playing game).
  • A person’s expected function or behavior pattern; may be used in reference to a specific situation or the overall society.

Now we can look at some cases where people are prone to mix up the two spellings:

Incorrect: An RPG [Roll Playing Game, not rocket propelled grenade] based on the Columbine massacre — post title of the January 13, 2007 entry at VisualConsumer.blogspot.com

Correct: An RPG (Role Playing Game, not Rocket Propelled Grenade) based on the Columbine massacre

Incorrect: Pancakes Play a Starring Roll at Gingham’s But the Supporting Cast Struggles — Title of an article by Ann Lemons at SauceMagazine.com

Correct: Pancakes Play a Starring Role at Gingham’s But the Supporting Cast Struggles

Incorrect: The seafood platter included fried clams, 2 fish fillets, maryland style crabcake and 3 jumbo fried shrimp with fries cole slaw and dinner role for a $12.99 price tag. — user “dkrizer”, attempting to write a review of Ogei’s Grill at Restaurantica.com

Correct: The seafood platter included fried clams, two fish fillets, a Maryland style crab cake, three jumbo fried shrimp, fries, coleslaw, and a dinner roll for $12.99.

Incorrect: Author Lisa Belkin opens with a confession that once, long long ago, she snitched a role of toilet paper from the restroom of the company she worked for. — Karen Burns at KarenBurnsWorkingGirl.com

Correct: Author Lisa Belkin opens with a confession that once, long long ago, she snitched a roll of toilet paper from her employer’s restroom.

As a general “thumbnail” usage guide, if you’re playing a part in something, use role. For everything else, use roll.


4 Responses to “English Lesson 13: Correct Use of Roll and Role”

  1. comment number 1 by: Ireland5

    This is a good one! I usually don’t make this mistake - but I bet if I start paying attention to these two words I’ll notice their misuse. Sometimes calling attention to errors really helps. Good post!

  2. comment number 2 by: Geoff

    What about the use of role in the follwing?

    Everything was going well and I was on a roll?

  3. comment number 3 by: Geoff

    What about the following sentence.

    Everything was going well and I felt I was on a roll.

    Everythin was going well and I was on a role.

  4. comment number 4 by: Karlonia

    @Geoff:

    Your first sentence is the correct usage. If things are going well, you’re “on a roll.”

    This is a similar usage to the old saying, “don’t stop when you’re on a roll.”

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