Word Confusion: Wail vs Wale vs Whale

Posted March 11, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 12 October 2017

Every time I see someone using wail to describe people beating on each other (or someone), I crack up. Yeahhh, not exactly the reaction I think the author was going for…but, I just…well…I…I find myself hoping they don’t drown…

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

If you found this post on this trio of heterographs, “Wail vs Wale vs Whale”, interesting, consider tweeting it to your friends. Subscribe to KD Did It, if you’d like to track this post for future updates.

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Wail Wale Whale
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: wale

Image courtesy of Horrorthon

Ya gotta check this site out,
he’s too funny!

Close capture of 5-wale corduroy with zippers and brown artificial leather piping

“5-Wale Corduroy” is Mariano-J’s own work [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Just like men to whale away at each other.

Part of Grammar:
Verb, intransitive & transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: wails
Past tense or past participle: wailed
Gerund or present participle: wailing

Adjective 1; Noun 1, 2, 3;
Verb, transitive 1, 2

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: wales
Past tense or past participle: waled
Gerund or present participle: waling


Noun 4;
Verb, intransitive & transitive 5

Plural for the noun: Plural: whale, whales
Third person present verb: whales
Past tense or past participle: whaled
Gerund or present participle: whaling

A prolonged high-pitched cry of pain, grief, or anger

  • A sound resembling a prolonged high-pitched cry

Verb, intransitive:
Give a cry of pain, grief, or anger

  • Make a sound resembling a wail
  • Cry out hard and loud

[Jazz] To perform exceptionally well

Verb, transitive:
Give a cry of pain, grief, or anger

  • [Literary] Manifest or feel deep sorrow for
  • Lament
Choice 1

A choice 1

A streak, stripe, or ridge produced on the skin by the stroke of a rod or whip 2

  • Welt

A vertical row of stitches in knitting

  • A chain of loops running lengthwise in knit fabric

The texture or weave of a fabric

Horizontal band on a basket

[Nautical] Any of certain strakes of thick outside planking on the sides of a wooden ship

  • Gunwale

[Engineering, Building Trades] A horizontal timber or other support for reinforcing various upright members, as sheet piling or concrete form boards, or for retaining earth at the edge of an excavation

A ridge on the outside of a horse collar

Something that is selected as the best 3

  • Choice

Verb, transitive:
To choose 1

To mark with wales 2

  • To raise a wale or wales on by striking

To weave with wales

[Engineering, Building Trades] To reinforce or fasten with a wale or wales

To choose 3

  • Select
[Slang] Describes a really good thing

Huge mammal that lives in water and surfaces to breathe

Verb, intransitive:
[Informal, chiefly North American] Beat, hit

Verb, transitive:
Hit someone hard and repeatedly

Christopher let out a wail.

The wail of an air-raid siren.

It was the wail of an old tune.

Verb, intransitive:
Tina ran off wailing.

“But why?” she wailed.

The baby was wailing.

The wind wailed and buffeted the timber structure.

Verb, transitive:
She wailed her wretched life.

She wailed at the funeral of her child.

They wailed the dead that they might not return.

That jazz band last night really wailed.

On an historical and religious note, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is sacred to Jews as a site for prayer and pilgrimage.


His back was covered in wales.

One yarn is required for every wale.

“Rib knits have pronounced lengthwise ribs formed by wales alternating on both sides of the fabric” (Britannica).

I don’t mind a wide wale corduroy for trousers, but I much prefer a pinwale for vests and such.

The gunwale was once the gun ridge on a sailing warship; these days, it’s the top edge of the side of a boat.

“Vertical staving was used to carry the wale around the stern.” – Howard I. Chapelle, The Migrations of an American Boat Type

“Cleats or scabs should be nailed in place over the joints between struts and wales” (National Safety Council).

A ganged form may be braced with wales.

When cleaning a horse collar, pay attention to the gunk that accumulates along the wale.

Verb, transitive:
A herringbone weave has wales running both ways.

The crew waled in a support for the formwork.

We had a whale of a time.

She was having a whale of a time at the party.

Fortunes were made on the East Coast by whalers hunting whales for their oil.

Verb, intransitive:
They whaled at the water with their paddles.

The muggers whaled on their victim.

They were whaling away on each other.

Verb, transitive:
Dad came upstairs and whaled me.

They whaled us six–zip.

She hauled off and whaled him a shrewd blow.

Adjective: unwailed, unwailing, wailful
Adverb: wailingly
Noun: wailer
Noun: breast timber, inwale, outwale ranger, waling Noun: whaler, whaling
History of the Word:
Middle English from Old Norse and related to woe. 1 From Old Norse val meaning choice and related to German Wahl.

2 Late Old English walu meaning stripe, weal.

3 1250-1300, Middle English wal (e) from the Old Norse val meaning choice and velja meaning to choose.

4 Old English hwæl is of Germanic origin.

5 Late 18th century as a variant of wale.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Corduroy Fabric is ArielGlenn’s own work under the GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0, or CC BY 4.0 license and becomes a jacket for Little Boney in the Whale’s Belley by Roberts [etcher – attributed], which is in the public domain courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries. Both images are via Wikimedia Commons.