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Disburse Vs. Disperse–Wrong!

Some people talk about their mistakes in therapy. Some write about their mistakes in diaries or journals. I write about mine here. That way, I may save other people from making the same errors.

The mistake: disburse vs. disperse.

My mistake was thinking that disburse meant “distribute methodically” while disperse meant “scatter.” WRONG!

Disburse means “distribute money.” Disperse means “distribute or scatter.” Disperse applies to everything except money.

You can disperse knowledge to your students. You can disperse an unruly crowd gathering in your lobby. (And the crowd itself can disperse.) You can disperse flyers about your upcoming sale.

But if it is money you want to distribute, disburse it. The word comes, in part, from the French word for purse, bourse. If it comes from your bourse, disburse it.

This might seem like a small error. Indeed, it is. The problem is that I have dispersed this misinformation to people in my writing classes.  If a small error is repeated many times, does it become a big error?

My office is filled with excellent reference books, which I always consult before putting a rule in writing to pass on in classes. That is why I don’t know how I got disperse/disburse wrong. But wrong I was.

I hope you get two things from this post:

  1. The difference between disperse and disburse
  2. The fact that experts are sometimes wrong, even with the best intentions
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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “Disburse Vs. Disperse–Wrong!”

  • I happen to agree completely., however, does not:

    I hear English is defined by its usage rather than the other way around. Therefore, if a small error is repeated many times, it becomes a NON-error. This is why “affect” and “effect” are now officially interchangeable, and words like “irregardless” are considered valid. For the record, I think that’s bogus.

  • Thank you so much for this! This has puzzled me for quite some time now! I will be sure not to misuse either.

  • Hmmm… if we are going to not pay for something centrally, but prefer that the costs be paid in all separate cost centers… are we disbursing or dispersing the cost? It’s happening to the charges… or the “budget hits”… but it is not actually “money being distributed”!

  • Paul, interesting question! I would say you are dispersing the costs, based on the discussion above.

    Coming here to reply to your comment, I noticed Eric’s comment above, which I had not seen before. I was shocked to read that “affect” and “effect” are officially interchangeable. Officially? No, it can’t be.


  • Another bookkeeping mistake I saw recently.

    “pouring over the annual financial report” rather than “poring over it.”


  • Remember also, if you disperse you have a dispersal; if you disburse, you have a disbursement.

  • I think it is a combination of your initial interpretation and your “purse” interpretation. E.g. “The mother carefully disbursed the remaining crayons to her three children.” Using “dispersed” here wouldn’t make sense.

    If something is physically limited and valuable (although not necessarily monetarily valuable), such that you would want to take care in distributing it, you disburse it, you don’t disperse (i.e. “scatter”) it.

  • Hi, George. Your explanation is not correct according to my reference books–the same books I consulted when I learned I was wrong.

    The mother does indeed “disperse” the crayons to her children. However, she disburses their weekly allowance.


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