Ingrained vs engrained – Which spelling is correct?

Within the English language, there are certain words that many struggle to spell. And most of them are entirely forgivable. This is because English is a mixture of loads of different languages, meaning that there will inevitably be some words that don’t follow the same rules as other words.

One word that people often misspell is “Ingrained”- that is the correct spelling. Although “Engrained” is a misspelling, it’s one that most people would be willing to forgive you for.

Even among native Britons, many of us will wrongly spell it as “Engrained”. This is likely thanks to words such as “Encourage”, “Endeavour”, and particularly “Engraved”.

In this article, I want to talk about where the word comes from, why it’s misspelt so often, and what it means.

 Etymology

Whenever I write about words, I always like to start off with an etymology. To understand the nuances that surround any word, the best place to start is the word’s origin. 

Most of the words in our language have a prefix and a suffix which combine to make a whole word. For example, dis (meaning not) and loyal combine to make disloyal.

Ingrain comes from “In” and “Grain”.

The suffix “grain”, is related to farming, in old English, a “grain” was another way of saying “seed”. In the past, seeds from berries would often be used to dye fabric into beautiful colours.

So the word “Ingrain” comes from the phrase “Dyed in grain”.

Definitions

Physical

The first definition of “Ingrain” is closely related to the etymology.

Chemicals can be physically ingrained into objects to change their colour or chemical structure. When something becomes “ingrained”, it gets changed at a molecular level.

When you dye a white shirt, the pigments of that shirt change, and the colour isn’t something that you can just wash off.

Similarly, if you were to poach an egg, you could say that the water has become ingrained into the egg, changing the chemical structure of the egg itself.

Mental

Our second definition of “ingrain” is talking about ideas that have become ingrained in your mind. To use the word in this sense is to say that specific beliefs are so firmly held, that they have begun to shape who you are as a person.

For example, you might hear some people say that “The virtues of freedom have become so ingrained in the American mind, people won’t accept the most basic government interference”.

That sentence is saying that there are certain ideas within some people’s minds, that changing their minds is going to be almost impossible.

Is it good to have ideas “ingrained” into your mind?

Yes

Some people would say that ingraining ideas into people’s minds are a good idea. When the idea is a good one, it’s good for people to have it in their mind, so they can live their life according to noble principles.

These ideas will help us to get along better as a society, and most of us have them in ourselves already. For example, when we were younger, we would have been taught manners and respect. This is something that we would likely carry with us into our adult lives.

If nobody had anything ingrained into them, we would all just be looking out for ourselves, and society would collapse.

No

On the other hand, there are other ideas that we should not have ingrained into us. In the past, people had ideas that they held so firmly, they were unable to break free from them, and they ended up making the world worse.

For example, during slavery and Nazi Germany, the idea that some races were superior to others was a belief that people held closely. Making ending the slave trade or preventing the Holocaust impossible.

Similarly, the idea that women were too dumb to vote was so ingrained in us that it took longer than it should have to give them that right.

Why do we misspell it so often?

Following the rules

As we mentioned at the start, many people will misspell the word “ingrained” and “engrained”. This is an honest mistake, but I want to explore why we make that mistake.

There are lots of words in the English language that have “En” at the beginning, and far fewer that have “In”. As humans, we tend to follow the rules that have been previously established.

Words such as Endeavour, and Encourage make us think that words that sound like “in” are actually “en”.

But being English, there are plenty of words that break the rules.

Engraved

Another reason for the confusion is that people might get “Ingrained” and “Engraved” mixed up. Phonetically, there is only one letter of difference between the two words- despite them having two different meanings.

To “engrave” is to carve on a hard surface. For example, you might choose to have your name “engraved” on your tombstone.

Even though the physical appearance will be different after and engraving, the chemical structure will remain the same.

Despite the name, the verb “grave” has nothing to do with the hole you go in when you die.

Does it matter?

Is “engrained” technically a misspelling? Yes

But does it matter? No.

The thing with language is that it isn’t determined by logic, it’s determined by democracy. Words don’t have a correct spelling because there’s some objective formula that we use to be able to spell them. They are spelt how the majority of people spell them.

And even if it’s technically “incorrect” to spell a word a certain way, so long as people know what you mean, you really don’t have anything to worry about.

Conclusion

The word “ingrained” is often misspelt as “engrained”.

The word is made up of “in” and “grain”, coming from the phrase “dyed in grain”- grain referring to the seed of berries which were used to change the colour of fabrics.

To say “ingrained” could be referring to changing the physical structure, or it could be talking about an idea that someone holds strongly onto.

 When it comes to ingraining ideas, it’s good if talking about manners and respect, but bad when talking about racism or sexism.

The confusion in spelling likely arises from words such as “Endeavour” and “Encourage”. But also from the mixing of “ingrain” and “engrave”. Having said that, if you do misspell it, it probably doesn’t matter.