Word Confusion: Disburse versus Disperse

Posted June 2, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 23 August 2017

A query about the difference between disburse and disperse came up in an erotic novel I was reading…see, anything one reads can be educational

The two words do have a definition, sort of, in common: they both scatter. Only, disburse scatters according to a plan while disperse scatters randomly. And only, disburse is about money.

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. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Disburse Disperse
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: disperse

A helmeted soldier hands out bags of supplies

“U.S. Army Spc. Paul Bernard Disburses Food, Water, and Medicine From a UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter to Victims of Hurricane Stan in Guatemala” is a U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st class Robert McRill and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Riot police use teargas and water cannon to break up the HINDRAF supporters during an illegal gathering on 25th November, 2007.

“Teargas and Water Cannon Disperse HINDRAF Supporters During Illegal Gathering”, 25 November 2007 by lastsham (originally posted to Flickr as perhimpunan hindraf) is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Part of Grammar:
Verb, transitive

Third person present verb: disburses
Past tense or past participle: disbursed
Gerund or present participle: disbursing

Adjective; Verb, intransitive & transitive

Third person present verb: disperses
Past tense or past participle: dispersed
Gerund or present participle: dispersing

Pay out money from a fund

  • Expend

To distribute or scatter

Denoting a phase dispersed in another phase, as in a colloid

Verb, intransitive and transitive:
Distribute or spread over a wide area

  • Go, separate, move apart, or cause to go in different directions or to different destinations
  • Become scattered
  • Vanish
  • Be dispelled
  • [With reference to gas, smoke, mist, or cloud] Thin out or cause to thin out and disappear

Verb, transitive:
Distribute or spread over a wide area

  • [Physics] Divide light into constituents of different wavelengths
  • [Chemistry] Distribute small particles uniformly in a medium
The proceeds were disbursed monthly.

Disburse the troops over a wide area to prevent the enemy pinpointing them too easily.

They said that $67 million of the pledged aid had already been disbursed.

She’s out there every day, disbursing bread for the geese.

Emulsions should be examined after storage for droplet size of the disperse phase.

Verb, intransitive:
The crowd dispersed on its own.

The earlier mist had dispersed, allowing the sun to shine forth.

Verb, transitive:
Storms can disperse seeds via high altitudes.

Camping sites should be dispersed among trees so as to be out of sight.

The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Winds dispersed the bomb’s radioactive cloud high in the atmosphere.

Miss Perkins, you will have to redo your experiment, as you did not disperse the elements as thoroughly as the instructions required.

Adjective: disbursable, nondisbursable, nondisbursed
Noun: disbursal, disbursement, disburser
Transitive Verb: redisburse, redisbursed, redisbursing
Adjective: dispersible, dispersive
Adverb: dispersedly
Noun: disperser, dispersibility, dispersion
Transitive Verb: predisperse, predispersed, predispersing
History of the Word:
Mid-16th century from the Old French desbourser, which is from des- (expressing removal) + bourse (purse), which came from the Late Latin bursa meaning bag. Late Middle English from the Latin dispers- meaning scattered, which is from the verb dispergere, which is itself from dis- (widely) + spargere (scatter, strew).

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits

Force 80™ Anti-Pirate Water Cannon System in a post, “New Anti-Pirate Water Cannon Video Released“, 15 August 2011, on MarineLink.com. I couldn’t find my source for the riot. If anyone recognizes it, please let me know. Famous Dollar Bill Wallpaper, Oatman Hotel, Oatman, Arizona by Ken Lund is under the CC BY-SA license, via Visualhunt.com