An aisle is a walkway between rows of seats or shelves. An isle is a small island or a peninsula surrounded by water.
What is the difference between aisle and isle?
If you’re shopping in a grocery store, you’ll find certain items in a particular aisle. If you’re sitting in the seat closest to a walkway between rows of seats, you’re sitting in the “aisle seat.” But if you’re traveling to an island, you might also call it an “isle.”
The difference between “aisle” and “isle” appears simple enough:
- Use “aisle” for passageways between seats or shelves.
- Use” isle” for islands or peninsulas surrounded by water.
Still, writers often misuse “aisle” and “isle” because they are homophones: words with similar spellings or pronunciations but different meanings. You might recognize the topic of homophones from past Word Counter lessons such as affect/effect, insure/ensure, capitol/capital, or even principal/principle.
How can aisle and isle sound the same?
Some people are surprised to learn that “aisle” and “isle” sound the same. The similarity comes from the silent S, which makes either word sound like “I’ll” or “eye–el.”
How to remember the difference between aisle and isle
To avoid confusing “aisle” and “isle,” try remembering how the spelling of “isle” starts similar to that of “island.”
What does aisle mean?
“Aisle” (plural aisles) is a noun that references a long narrow passage between seat rows (such as those of a plane, train, theater, or church) or a walkway between shelves and cabinets (like the ones at the store).
- “Many airlines reserve lots of seats for elite-level frequent fliers, and add fees to lots of aisle and window seats throughout the cabin.” — The Wall Street Journal
- “On a flight from Paris to London, the actress and singer Jane Birkin was attempting to stow her straw tote when its contents spilled over the aisle and into the path of her seat neighbour….” — The Sydney Morning Herald
- “Wander down the beverage aisle of your local supermarket or bodega, and you might spot some dreamy-looking cans, in sherbet and pastel hues…” — The New York Times
- “It’s a similar story in the dairy aisle. Maybe there is reason to cry over spilled milk after all.” — Lewiston Tribune
Common phrases with “aisle” often involve wedding customs. For example, the phrases “lead someone up the aisle” and “walk down the aisle” both mean “to get married.
- “Look for fabrics such as tulle, georgette and silk organza that will have you floating, not walking, down the aisle.” — Vogue Australia
- “Another showed Emilie walking arm-in-arm with her man, followed by her mum who was beaming as she was walked down the aisle by her father…” — Manchester Evening News
- “As Kim Kardashian gets ready to walk down the aisle with fiancé Kris Humphries, her American football star ex-boyfriend is dating her doppelgänger.” — Daily Mail
The word aisle also appears in political commentary when referencing seating arrangements during meetings of Congress or Parliament. As such, the noun functions as a figurative, imaginary line between opposing political opinions and public policies. For example, the phrase “reaching across the aisle” conveys how members of opposing political parties are working together to reach a mutual solution.
- “… members of Congress today are much less likely to physically cross the aisle of the chamber to fraternize with members of the opposing party than they were even 10 or 15 years ago.” — The Washington Post
- “Five months ago, Cheney led the charge from the Republican side of the aisle for Trump’s second impeachment in January.” — The Texas Tribune
- “… the moment also brought forth a wave of memes from both sides of the political aisle.” — USA Today
- “On the other side of the aisle, conservatives adopted an anti-civil-rights stance, ostensibly on constitutional grounds, and began pushing for a party realignment…” — The Washington Post
Alternatively, the noun aisle can denote the part of a church nave that is separated from the main seating area by a row of pillars or piers. In case you’re unsure, the “nave” is the central part of a Christian church, extending from the main entrance to the sanctuary area. The pillars on the outer sides of seating rows separate the nave from the aisles (you can find a helpful photo reference here).
- “This week, the hoardings have come down on the north side of the Abbey revealing the newly restored floor in this area including the north aisle, north transept and part of the nave.” — Somerset Live
- “She went in and tiptoed down the side aisle until she reached an empty seat with a view of the choir and the altar.” — The New Yorker
Gangway, passage, passageway, row, walkway.
Etymology of aisle
“Aisle” comes from Late Middle English ele or ile via Old French ele and Latina ala (‘wing’).
What does isle mean?
The noun isle (plural isles) references a small island or peninsula surrounded by water. The noun can be a part of a location’s formal name or reference a small island in a literary fashion.
- “Wolf pups have been spotted again on Isle Royale, a hopeful sign in the effort to rebuild the predator species’ population….” — AP News
- “Three people have been rescued after their yacht sank in gusts and rough seas near the Isle of Man.” — BBC
- “It’s spectacularly, naturally beautiful, with white-sand beaches and stunning waterfalls and—befitting a place known as the Spice Isle of the Caribbean…” — Vogue
- “From here, explore the nearby Isle of Iona – the last resting place of Macbeth – or take a boat trip to glimpse the beautiful wildlife.” — The Scotsman
- “A medieval ring was unearthed on the Isle of Mull, where similar jewellery has previously been located…” — BBC
- “Cohen had been spending considerable time on the Greek isle of Hydra then, and Rosengarten in the Eastern Townships hamlet of Way’s Mills…” — Montreal Gazette
- “The towering presence of the Mt Yōtei volcano watches over Niseko, jewel of Japan’s most northerly isle.” — Telegraph
- “But visions of being stranded on an uncharted desert isle floated before my eyes nonetheless.” — Los Angeles Times
Atoll, barrier reef, cay, coral reef, island, islet, key.
Continent, main, mainland.
Can isle be a verb?
The word isle is a transitive verb when it means “to make an isle of” or “to place on or as if on an isle.” In this case, we would use “isled” for the past participle and “isling” for the present participle.
Etymology of isle
“Isle” derives from Middle English ile through Old French (c. 15th century) from Latin insula. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the first use of the verb isle appeared in the 13th century to mean “to place on or as in on an isle.” The secondary definition of the verb appeared later in 1576.
When to use isle vs. island?
English speakers tend to use “isle” for a small island (or “islet,” a tiny island) among a cluster of nearby islands (an “archipelago”). The largest island of an archipelago is typically called an “island” instead of an “isle” to distinguish land size. For instance, Seychelles is an island nation that includes a group of coral islands called the “Amirante Isles.”
However, the word “isle” also appears in names of big islands, larger archipelagos, or islands belonging to mainland countries. For example, “The British Isles” is an archipelago in northwestern Europe that includes Great Britain, Ireland, and thousands of smaller islands called “isles,” as well.
Test how well you understand the difference between aisle and isle with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false?: The word “isle” only appears in proper nouns.
- Why are “isle” and “aisle” easily confused?
a. Isle and aisle are homophones
b. Both words share the same pronunciations
c. Each word contains a silent S
d. All of the above
- Which of the following is not an aisle?
a. A walkway separating sections of seats within movie theaters
b. A passageway between seats of a railroad passenger car
c. A tunnel in a cave
d. The isles of Rugan, Germany
- The word isle often references _____________.
a. When members of one political party talk with members of an opposing party
b. The names of islands or peninsulas
c. A hallway in warehouses, stores, or residential buildings
d. A and C
- The metaphorical use of the word aisle describes _____________.
a. The gap between seats in a passenger vehicle
b. The ways parties arrange themselves during meetings of Congress
c. (Of a church) the lower part parallel to the nave proper, separated by pillars
d. All of the above
- Which of the following sentences uses “aisle” or “isle” incorrectly?
a. “A wider cabin means wider seats or a wider aisle.”
b. “The enchanting isles are said to host many unique plants and animals.”
c. “The shipwrecked family claimed to have found Crusoe’s fabled isle.”
d. “The faction’s spokesperson took a drubbing from both sides of the isle.”
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Photos by Adolfo Félix and S. Migaj on Unsplash.