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The Difference Between “Illicit” vs. “Elicit” Explained

Illicit is an adjective that describes something as unlawful, prohibited or morally frowned upon. Elicit is a verb that means to bring forth or draw information or a response.

Illicit/elicit in text conversation.
Illicit vs. elicit in text conversation.



When to use “illicit” vs. “elicit”

English has words that sound the same but have absolutely nothing to do with each other in meaning, (read: illicit vs. elicit).


Naturally, this creates confusion, and we can chalk it up to the philological phenomenon known as homophones, (i.e., words that sound the same but have different meanings).


Nevertheless, illicit and elicit, which are examples of homophones as they sound nearly identical, have no overlap in meaning and cannot be used interchangeably. Our advice (and the Grammarflex consensus, if you will), avoid conflating the two in writing.

“Illicit” vs. “elicit”, explained

  • Illicit is an adjective that describes something as “not allowed by the law”, or as “not approved of by the normal rules of society”. An example of the latter is in the phrase, “an illicit love affair“, (which is not illegal, but generally frowned upon).


  • Elicit is a verb that means “to get information or a reaction from somebody, often with difficulty”. Example: Hypnotism elicited his hidden fears.


Examples with ‘elicit’Examples with ‘illicit’
Her emotionally charged monologue elicited intense emotion from the audience.The authorities cracked down on the illicit trade of stolen artifacts.

Et voilà! There you have the difference. Illicit is an adjective that describes actions or events as unlawful or morally frowned upon, while elicit is a verb that refers to pulling out information or a response from someone.

The current understanding of both words adheres to their original definition, etymologically speaking. Illicit comes from the Latin illicitus, “not allowed, unlawful, illegal”, where elicit is from the Latin elicitus, meaning, “to draw out, bring forth or to light”.  

‘Illicit’, used in sentences

Examples: “illicit“, used in sentences
The authorities cracked down on the illicit trade of stolen artifacts.

The nightclub was shut down due to its involvement in hosting illicit activities.

The documentary exposed the harsh realities of illicit drug production in the remote region.

The hacker was arrested for engaging in illicit online activities, including identity theft.



‘Elicit’, used in sentences

Examples: “elicit“, used in sentences
The detective’s skillful questioning was able to elicit a confession from the suspect.

The artist’s paintings were known to elicit strong emotions and reactions from viewers.

The comedian’s jokes never failed to elicit laughter from the audience.

The teacher used thought-provoking questions to elicit thoughtful responses from the students.

The survey was designed to elicit feedback from customers about their experience with the product.

Synonyms of illicit

  • illegal
  • felonious
  • forbidden
  • lawless
  • criminalized
  • shameful
  • unlawful
  • unsanctioned
  • prohibited
  • criminal
  • wrongful

Synonyms of elicit

  • evoke
  • inspire
  • raise
  • educe
  • extract
  • obtain
  • procure
  • disclose
  • divulge
  • unmask

Origin of illicit

c. 1500, from Old French illicite “unlawful, forbidden” (14c.), from Latin illicitus “not allowed, unlawful, illegal,” from assimilated form of in- “not, opposite of” (see in- (1)) + licitus “lawful,” past participle of licere “to be allowed”.

Origin of elicit

“To draw out, bring forth or to light,” 1640s, from Latin elicitus, past participle of elicere “draw out, draw forth,” from ex “out” (see ex-) + -licere, combining form of lacere “to entice, lure, deceive”.

Check out other commonly confused words

Commonly misused wordsUK English vs. US English
former vs. latterburned or burnt?
bear with vs. bare withcolor or colour?
breathe or breathfavorite vs. favourite
compliment vs. complementsmelled or smelt?
effect vs. affectgray or grey?
elude or alludefavor vs. favour
it’s or itsanalyze or analyse?

Sources  

  1. “Illicit.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/illicit. Accessed 19 Aug. 2023.
  2. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of illicit.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/illicit. Accessed 19 August, 2023.
  3. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of elicit.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/elicit. Accessed 19 August, 2023.

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