diffuse vs. defuse

In English, you don’t have to look far to find pairs of words that look or sound similar. Just think of their vs. there, empathic vs. empathetic, and compose vs. comprise. In some cases, you can use both words interchangeably because they mean the same thing. In other cases, though, you can’t swap one word in the pair for the other because the two words mean different things. Which category do diffuse vs. defuse fall into? Take a guess and find the answer below!


Diffuse is the word you’re probably more familiar with, so let’s start with this one. As a verb (a word that describes an action), diffuse means to spread out or scatter. Remember when you learned about diffusion in science class? If you do, you might recall that it describes the process by which molecules move around and spread out. Even if you’re not a scientist, though, you would use diffuse in sentences like these:

  • “The blue dye diffused in the beaker.”
  • “The content marketing strategy diffused throughout the industry.”
  • “A new attitude toward customer satisfaction diffused throughout the company.”

Diffuse is also an adjective that means scattered or spread out. Here are some examples of how you would use it:

  • “The lighting in the room was diffuse.”
  • “Power was diffuse in the government, which made it hard to get anything done.”
  • “She has been experiencing diffuse pain in her back since the accident.”

When you’re trying to remember the difference between diffuse vs. defuse, remember that diffuse represents the idea of spreading something out.


Defuse may look less familiar to you, but it isn’t some sort of abstract term you would find only on the SAT. What does it mean? Well, the primary definition of defuse is to take the fuse out of a bomb. But you can also use defuse figuratively to describe reducing the tension or danger in a situation (i.e., deactivating a figurative bomb).

Here’s how you could use defuse in a sentence:

  • “The police were called in to defuse the bomb.”
  • “Michel really knows how to defuse tension in a room.”
  • “A mediator can defuse tension between a company and the union representing employees.”

When you’re trying to remember the difference between diffuse vs. defuse, remember that defuse represents the idea of reducing danger or tension.

How can you keep diffuse vs. defuse straight?

You can remember the difference between diffuse vs. defuse by remembering what they mean. Of course, even if you remember the definitions of these words, you might not remember which definition matches each word.

Lucky for you, though, there’s another trick you can use. Take a look at the word defuse. Do you notice anything?

If you break down the word defuse, you get de + fuse, which means to take the literal or figurative fuse out of something. So all you need to do is remember that the word that literally says “to take out a fuse” (“defuse”) is the one that describes removing danger or tension in a situation. That’s not too bad, is it?

Is it always wrong to use diffuse vs. defuse interchangeably?

Most grammar experts treat diffuse vs. defuse as separate words with distinct meanings. But some dictionaries note that you can use diffuse the way you would use defuse: to describe reducing tension in a situation. For example, the Oxford Dictionaries says that you can use diffuse like this:

  • “Only peaceful dialogue between the two countries could diffuse.”

And the Collins Dictionary says you can use diffuse like this:

  • “The arrival of letters from the Pope did nothing to diffuse the tension.”

So although not everyone believes you can use diffuse vs. defuse interchangeably, it may eventually be common to use these words this way.

Diffuse vs. defuse: Our final word

Diffuse vs. defuse sound the same and look similar, but they generally mean different things. Use diffuse when you’re talking about spreading something out and use defuse when you’re talking about reducing tension or danger.



Confused about the difference between may  vs. might? Check out our recent post on when to use may  vs. might in a sentence.



Diffuse vs. defuse: What’s the difference?
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