Disperse vs. Disburse – What’s the Difference?

Everyday-spoken English is usually considered less formal than written English, and this informality sometimes extends to word pronunciation. Even some words that originally had distinct pronunciations have become homophones, or words that sound alike, but mean different things.

Disperse and disburse are two such words. While their pronunciations are different (only slightly), most speakers pronounce the words identically, and their closely related meanings have led to their misuse in written English.

Professional and academic writing depend on careful word choice, so to use disperse instead of disburse, or vice versa, could damage your credibility. Continue reading to find out the differences between these words, as well as appropriate situations to use each.

What is the Difference Between Disperse and Disburse?

In this article, I will compare disperse vs. disburse. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context.

I will also demonstrate the use of a mnemonic device that should help you choose disperse or disburse next time you need to use one of those words.

When to Use Disperse

disperse versus disburse What does disperse mean? Disperse is a verb; it means to distribute something or to spread out or scatter.

Where disburse is used to refer to the distribution of money, disperse is used in most other contexts.

Here are some examples,

  • If the police arrive, the crowd is likely to disperse.
  • Harry climbed to the top of the mountain to disperse his father’s ashes on the wind.
  • Rappers disperse knowledge on their hot rap tracks.
  • When a group of youths threw stones at them, they fired into the air to disperse the crowd. –The Washington Post

When to Use Disburse

Definition of disburse definition of disperse definitionWhat does disburse mean? Disburse is also verb; it means to distribute money. As you can see, this is a much more restricted definition than that of disperse.

The sentences below are examples.

  • After you have provided the necessary documentation, the bank will disburse the funds to you.
  • “When will the student accounts office disburse the refund on my loans?” Angela asked.
  • Under pressure from activists, the corporation elected to disburse its excess cash on hand to its shareholders.
  • Insurers wound up requesting $2.87 billion in disbursements, but just $362 million wound up being paid out. –Newsweek

How to Pronounce Disperse and Disburse

As I mentioned in the introduction, these two words do have different pronunciations, but it is very subtle, which leads to the confusion between the two.

Just for those who are curious, the difference in pronunciation relates to the where the stressed syllables are in each word.

  • Disperse is pronounced di-sperse.
  • Disburse is pronounced dis-burse.

A subtle difference, I know.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define disburse and define disperseDisburse and disperse are both verbs that mean to distribute. Their usage cases depend on context, so here is a helpful trick to remember disburse vs. disperse.

If you are referring to the distribution of money, you should choose disburse. This verb is only used in financial contexts.

If you are referring to the distribution of anything else, like pamphlets, pollen on the wind, or a communicable disease, choose disperse. Disperse can also mean to scatter, like a crowd breaking up or throwing ashes to the wind.

To remind yourself that disburse is primarily used in financial contexts, remember that it shares a B with the word bank, another financial word.

Summary

Is it disperse or disburse? The verbs disburse and disperse have very similar pronunciations, and, while they have similar meanings, they have clearly defined usage cases.

  • Disburse refers to the distribution of money.
  • Disperse refers to the distribution of anything else, or scattering, as of crowds and ashes.

Since the words disburse and bank are each spelled with the letter B, it should be easy to keep these words straight in your mind.

Any time you have questions about confusing words or elements of writing style, you can check back with Writing Explained for tips and useful guidance.