metal vs. mettle vs. medal

What is the difference between metal and mettle?

The word mettle means “the ability, determination, or resolve needed to meet a challenge or persevere under pressure.” The term has now fallen into disuse in everyday speech and writing, generally being reserved for slightly formal phrases like prove/show one’s mettle (meaning “to prove or demonstrate one’s ability, determination, and resolve”). For example:
  • “If you want to continue running this company, you’ll have to prove your mettle to our investors.”
  • “I think he’s definitely shown his mettle with his performance in that game.”
Because it is so uncommon in modern speech and writing, it is easy to simply use the much more familiar metal instead, as both words are pronounced /ˈmɛtəl/. However, we must be careful not to do this, as the two words have discrete meanings and uses in modern English.
(It’s worth mentioning, though, that these two words were actually interchangeable for most of their existence, with mettle being a variant spelling of metal. It was only in the 18th century when mettle diverged completely and took on its new, specific meaning.)

What is the difference between metal and medal?

Another pair that sometimes causes problems for writers is metal and medal. A metal is a chemical element typically in solid form, such as tin, copper, or iron, or an alloy made from a combination of these elements, while a medal is a flat piece of metal formed into a certain shape and bearing a specific image or inscription, typically given as an award for some achievement.
Although they are pronounced differently when articulated carefully—metal is pronounced /ˈmɛtəl/, and medal is pronounced /ˈmɛdəl/—the /t/ sound in metal is commonly softened in casual speech, so that it sounds closer to a /d/ sound.
Perhaps what adds to the confusion is that a medal is typically made from some sort of metal. However, there are a few mnemonic tricks we can use to help distinguish them.

Spelling Tricks and Tips

To remember that metal is spelled with a T, just pronounce its adjective form, metallic, in which the T is always enunciated very crisply, and never sounds like a D. To remember that medal is spelled with a D, keep in mind that it is usually given as an award.
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