There is a lot of confusion about these two words, partly because there isn’t much consensus on how to use them, but today I want to address that confusion.
What’s the difference between flier and flyer? Is it a dialectal difference? Are they used in different contexts or to refer to different things? Can they be used interchangeably?
Today, I want to answer these questions, talk about how these words are used, and summarize the most popular and authoritative usage guides’ opinions on them.
After reading this post, you will have solid understanding of the flier vs. flyer debate and a clear path forward.
What is a Flier/Flyer?
A flier (flyer), of course, can either refer to a pilot/air traveler or a handbill/leaflet. There is some disagreement on which spelling applies to which, however.
When to Use Flier
Some style guides, such as The AP Stylebook, say that flier is the preferred choice to refer to both pilots and handbills, with no exceptions. It says that Flyer is the proper name given to some trains and buses (The Western Flyer) but not to be applied elsewhere.
Garner’s Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage both state that flier is the standard/preferred form in American English.
When to Use Flyer
Other style guides, such as that of The Economist (a British publication), say flyer is the preferred choice to be given to both pilots and handbills.
Garner’s and Fowler’s both state that flyer is the standard/preferred form in British English.
The problem with institutionalizing the above characterizations, however, is that even the British-American divide between these two words isn’t fully agreed upon or even borne out in practice.
For instance, the Daily Telegraph (a British publication) style guide says to use flier—not flyer. And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (an American dictionary) says that flyer is a common spelling for a handbill in the United States. The reason for this is because, long before flight took place as we currently know it, flyer was a slang term, eventually become widespread in use, to refer to refer to a single sheet of paper meant to advertise or inform—especially those used by police stations as warrants for arrest. The term arose out of the widespread dissemination of these advertisements, similar to a flock of bird taking flight.
In other words, both spellings have coexisted together for many years.
What Should You Do?
Given the complete lack of agreement on how to use flier or flyer, the most important thing for you to consider is consistency. Be sure to your writing stays consistent.
Here are the three acceptable ways to refer to fliers/flyers,
- Use fliers in all senses (like The AP Stylebook).
- Use flyers in all senses (like The Economist).
- Use fliers to refer to pilots and flyers to refer to handbills (common practice and allowed by Webster’s Dictionary).
In America, “C” is probably the most common, although flyer seems to be increasingly popular when referring to pilots and air travelers.
Those writing on this subject will often mention a company’s “frequent-flier program” to illustrate the pilot-handbill distinction, but most airlines/credit card companies don’t actually use that term. Instead, they opt for “frequent-flyer program.”
United, Delta, American, Southwest, Frontier, and JetBlue Airlines all use the term “frequent-flyer”—not “frequent-flier.”
Nonetheless, for the time being, I advise using option “C.”
Remember the Difference
If you do choose option “C” over the others, here is a great trick to keep track of flyer vs. flier.
Flier is used to refer to pilots. Both words have an “I” in them.
Flyer is a term used to refer to a handbill used for publicity. Both words have a “Y” in them.
Since there is no universally accepted rule for when to use which word, it’s most important to stay consistent.
Whether you are using flyer or flier, pick one word and stick with it in your article.