Word Confusion: Holey vs Holly vs Holy vs Wholly

Posted December 7, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Holy Moses! Did you see how holey the writing is in that story? It’s part of the Holy Grail of writing to achieve a well-organized story that lays it out for the reader. Sure you can keep them guessing, but make sure those words flow and make sense from one scene to the next. You don’t want your readers wholly confused, do you? I know I’d want my stories to be like the holly, evergreen for the, ahem, buying public *grin*

And you guessed it. It’s a trio of heterographsholey, holy, and wholly. Holly got tucked in as it is frequently confused with holey and holy, even though it is pronounced differently.

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.

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Holey Holly Holy Wholly
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: holly, holy, and wholly

A five shilling holey dollar coin

“Holey Dollar” is courtesy of the British Museum photographed by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Closeup of Ilex aquifolium

“Ilex aquifolium” is AnRo0002’s own work under the CC0 1.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s more commonly known as English holly.

A rosary sits atop an open bible

“Bible, Rosary, Prayer” is by jclk and is in the public domain, via VisualHunt

Can’t get much more holy than those three.

A mountain created by glaciers with a beautiful lake below that is pretty as a picture

“Picture Lake at Mount Shuksan”, North Cascade Range of Washington state by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium, is under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Shuksan is a glaciated peak wholly contained within Mount Baker Wilderness.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective Noun; Proper Noun
Plural for noun: hollies
Adjective; Noun;
Proper Noun
Having holes or full of holes Noun:
A widely distributed tree or shrub, — genus Ilex, family Aquifoliaceae — typically having prickly dark green leaves, small white flowers, and red berries

The foliage and berries, used for decoration, especially during the Christmas season

Proper Noun:
A female or male given name

Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose

  • Sacred
  • [Of a person] Devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion
  • Morally and spiritually excellent

[Dated or humorous] Used in exclamations of surprise or dismay


[Slang] Very much of a

  • Godly
  • Pious
  • Devout

Entitled to worship or veneration as, or as if, sacred


Inspiring fear, awe, or grave distress

A place of worship

  • Sacred place
  • Sanctuary

Proper Noun:
[Informal] A clergyman


  • Fully
  • Totally
  • Altogether
  • Quite

To the whole amount, extent, etc.

So as to comprise or involve all

Wow, those are some holey socks, Joe.

No, you cannot wear that holey sweater, Hannah.

When are you going to replace those holey tennis shoes?

There are several deciduous species of holly but the evergreen hollies are more typical and familiar.

Ilex opaca, a.k.a., American holly, is what we call Christmas holly.

The American holly is the state tree of Delaware.

You remember that song, the one that goes “Deck the halls with boughs of holly…”

Proper Noun:
Buddy Holly was a rock-and-roll singer who wrote That’ll Be the Day.

Mama, can Holly come over to play?

At your First Communion, you will receive your own Holy Bible.

The holy month of Ramadan requires a devout Muslim to fast all day.

Saints, priests, and holy men are devoted to serving God.

I do not lead a holy life.

Holy smoke!

Cemeteries and and churches are considered holy ground.

The director, when angry, is a holy terror.

Mother Church performs the holy rites.

Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.

That girl is a holy terror.

Numerous holy wars are fought in every century.

Holy water is supposed to hurt vampires, or so I’ve heard.

Paul plans to take holy orders.

Christmas and Easter are holy days.

Holy basil is venerated by Hindus as a sacred plant.

Proper Noun:
The Christian Holy Land is where Israel and Palestine now exist, while the Islamic Holy Land is Arabia.

So who’s the Holy Joe in this parish?

There were various Holy Leagues that were alliances sponsored in Europe by the pope in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Holy Mary is the Mother of God in Christianity.

She is such a Holy Mary.

He’s one of those Holy Rollers.

The last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was never even officially crowned before he abdicated in 1806.

The pope’s official title is Holy Father.

She found herself given over wholly to sensation.

The distinction is not wholly clear.

“The precision it took to craft such a cohesive, wholly compelling work over 12 years is nothing short of remarkable.” – Marlow Stern, “Oscars 2015: The Daily Beast’s Picks, From Scarlett Johansson to ‘Boyhood’“, The Daily Beast, 6 January 2015

“Sex, then, is not wholly experiential but at least partially transactional.” – Elizabeth Picciuto, “Have Sperm, Will Travel: The ‘Natural Inseminators’ Helping Women Avoid the Sperm Bank “, The Daily Beast, 29 November 2014

“A group of New York chefs show The Daily Beast how to enliven, or wholly recast, holiday table staples.” – Sara Sayed, “Thanksgiving Favorites, With a Twist “, The Daily Beast, 26 November 2014

Adjective: holier, holiest
Noun: hole
Verb: hole, holed, holing
Noun: hollyhock, Hollywood Adjective: holier, holiest, unholy, unholier, unholiest
Adverb: holily
Noun: unholiness
History of the Word:
Old English and related to the Dutch hollow and the German hohl meaning hollow, from an Indo-European root meaning cover, conceal. Middle English holi, is a shortened form of the Old English holegn, holen, which is of Germanic origin and related to the German Hulst. Old English hālig is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch and the German heilig, also to whole. Middle English (and was probably already in Old English).

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

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

The Holly and the Scots Pine by Colin Smith is via Wikimedia Commons. Palm Sunday at the Basilica del Santo Niño by dbgg1979 is via VisualHunt. Both are under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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