Light vs. Lite: What’s the Difference?

“Light” and “lite” are homophones; the two words sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. Something lite has fewer calories or less complexity than another thing. “Light,” on the other hand, is a word with dozens of different meanings. Whereas the –ite ending is a phonetic shorthand that may be common in informal writing, “light” works in both formal and informal contexts. You can use light as an adjective, noun, verb, and adverb. There are fewer applications for the word “lite,” and most often “light” is the best word to choose. 

Here are a couple of times when you might want to use the word “lite”:

  • As part of a brand name (e.g. Miller Lite)
  • To describe something unthreatening or less serious, especially when used postpositively (e.g. politics-lite)

 

In almost all other contexts, it would be appropriate to use “light,” and that is the more formal choice. The American Psychological Association (APA) Style Blog explains, 

“Variant spellings such as lite or thru or tonite pass muster as legitimate options if you’re designing advertising materials or naming a new product, because creativity in spelling is acceptable in these contexts. However, in the more formal universe of academic writing, when presented with variant spellings you should use the most common, formal, and accepted spelling of a word—light (or through or tonight).”

So unless you are an advertiser selecting a brand name for a low-calorie product, we recommend sticking to light beer, light fixtures, and light laundry.

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Etymology

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “lite” or “lyt” was popular in Old and Middle English. At that time, it meant “few; little; not much.” It derived from the Proto-Indo-European root leud-, meaning “small.”

In contrast, the adjective “light,” as in lightweight, originated with the Proto-Indo-European root legwh-. The word also borrowed from the Proto-Germanic lingkhtaz to become “leoht” or “leht” in Old English. Even in Old English, the word had a number of homonyms with meanings like “not dark” and “radiant energy.”

“Lite” and “lyt” became “little” as the English language continued to evolve, and both spellings would have faded out entirely; however, the advertising industry revived the word in the 20th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary quotes a 1922 reference to both “Adjusto-Lite” and “Auto-lite” in The Trade-Mark Reporter. The standalone word (not merely the hyphenated suffix) was revived by 1962. 

Perhaps most famously, lite beer arrived on the scene in the 1970’s. As The Brew Zen Master reports, “In 1972, Meister Brau underwent many financial difficulties and ended up selling some of its existing labels and recipes to the Miller conglomerate. Miller reinvented the recipe simply as ‘lite’ on their packages and viola – here is the birth of the iconic lite beer.” Miller Lite may have been among the first brands to introduce the term “lite” to a calorie-conscious audience, but it certainly wasn’t the last. 

Today, “lite” is included in the brand name of many diet products, including: 

  • Spam Lite
  • Go Lite! Popcorn
  • Marie Lite Biscuits
  • Little Bear Lite Cheddar Puffs
  • Blue Bunny Hi Lite Ice Cream

In addition, technology products are also labeled lite when they are less complex or more compact than another product. 

Examples include:

  • Nintendo Switch Lite
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite
  • Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite 

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines lite as an adjective. 

It means:

  • made with a lower calorie content or with less of some ingredient (such as salt, fat, or alcohol) than usual
  • diminished or lacking in substance or seriousness

Light can be used as a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. 

As a noun, it has sixteen different meanings, ranging from “clothing that is light in color” to “a flame for lighting something (such as a cigarette).” 

In its verb form, light has over a dozen additional meanings, including “to set fire to” and “to brighten.”

As an adverb, light means “lightly” or “with little baggage.” 

As an adjective, “light” has some overlap with the word “lite”. Below, we’ve listed the definitions for the adjective “light,” and we’ve bolded the definitions that also apply to the shortened spelling. 

  • bright
  • pale
  • medium in saturation and high in lightness
  • served with extra milk or cream
  • having little weight, not heavy
  • designed to carry a comparatively small load
  • having relatively little weight in proportion to bulk
  • containing less than the legal, standard, or usual weight
  • of little importance 
  • not abundant
  • easily disturbed
  • gentle
  • faint
  • easily endurable
  • requiring little effort
  • capable of moving swiftly or nimbly
  • frivolous
  • lacking in stability
  • sexually promiscuous
  • cheerful
  • less powerful but usually more mobile than usual for its kind
  • made with a lower calorie content or with less of some ingredient (such as salt, fat, or alcohol) than usual
  • having a relatively mild flavor
  • easily digested
  • well leavened
  • coarse and sandy or easily pulverized
  • dizzy
  • intended chiefly to entertain
  • carrying little or no cargo
  • producing goods for direct consumption by the consumer
  • not bearing a stress or accent
  • having a clear soft quality
  • being in debt to the pot in a poker game
  • short
  • casual, occasional

When you consider all the possible definitions of light, there are very few contexts where “light” can be replaced by the word “lite”. On the other hand, when “lite” is used as an adjective, it can often be replaced by “light” without changing the meaning. If “lite” is part of a proper noun, especially a brand name related to food products, entertainment products, or electronics, you can’t replace it with “light”. Conversely, Bud Light and Olive Garden Light Italian Dressing both spell their brand names with the –ght variant. Although there is no difference between lite and light in this context, try to avoid misspelling proper names. Conflating two brand names may cause your reader confusion. 

If you’re using the word “light” as a verb, adverb, or noun, you can always depend on the –ght variant. For adjectives, try to stay away from the phonetic variant of light in formal writing.

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, some synonyms for light include:

  • bright
  • rich
  • pastel
  • agile
  • delicate
  • lightweight
  • loose
  • small
  • faint
  • lively
  • sunny
  • bulb
  • candle
  • lamp
  • ray
  • information
  • ignite
  • kindle
  • sit

Other Words and Phrases

“Lite” can also be a word-forming suffix that means “stone,” as in the following words:

  • Phonolite is a gray or green volcanic rock consisting essentially of orthoclase and nepheline.
  • Coprolite describes fossilized excrement.
  • Ichnolite refers to a fossil footprint.
  • Cetotolite is a fossil bone of a whale.

Sources: 

  1. https://brewzenmaster.com/lite-vs-light/
  2. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=lite
  3. https://www.etymonline.com/word/light
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/light
  5. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lite
  6. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cetotolite
  7. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ichnolite
  8. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phonolite
  9. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coprolite