This isn’t a gun debate. It’s a verb debate. And neither of them has anything to do with firearms.
There is a difference between “riffling” and “rifling” through the pages of your favorite writing reference book. Both are possible. But I’m guessing there’s only one that you mean.
And seriously, if you’re confused, please get those guns out of your head. That’s not where I’m going here.
- “To rifle” is to do a rough, quick search of something—sometimes, it means to ransack, with an intention of theft. You can rifle through your junk drawer. You can rifle through your closet. Bad guys in books commonly “rifle” through the rooms that they are robbing to find the money or jewels or world-changing artifact that someone tucked away in a surprisingly obvious, not particularly secure place (be careful with this cliché, fiction writers).
- “To riffle” is to manipulate something quickly. You can riffle the pages of a diary or a deck of cards. You can riffle through a notebook absentmindedly, listening to the sound of its shifting papers. You can riffle the pages of book to enjoy that lovely old-book smell. It helps to remember that “riffling” (with two “f”s) is a lot like “ruffling.”
Unsurprisingly, these two words share a common root.
To rifle came first, in roughly the fourteenth century, from the Anglo-French word rifler to plunder. “Riffle,” on the other hand, didn’t come to be until about the eighteenth century. Maybe it was an alliteration of “ruffle.” Maybe it was a blend of “ruffle” and “ripple.” Maybe someone thought there’s this word “rifle” out there so let’s make things a degree more confusing. (Okay, I might have made that last one up.)
You don’t want to ruffle (or riffle?) anyone’s feathers by getting this one wrong. The subtle difference is one worth knowing.
Now, where can you store this essential writing tip so that you won’t have to rifle around to find it next time you need it? I vote for bookmarking this blog, but if you feel so inclined, you can print it out with some of your other favorites so you can riffle through these communication reminders, absorbing their insights with your fingertips. That’s how learning works, right? Maybe not, but feel free to try.
Happy writing, folks.
Join 775+ subscribers and sign-up for my writing and editing email newsletter for more language tips and trivia like this.