Reel vs. Real: What’s the Difference?

English words that have identical pronunciations but maintain separate meanings and usage cases are known as homophones.

English has many homophones, and they can be very confusing to someone who is not familiar with them, like language learners and beginner writers.

Real and reel are two commonly misused homophones. They sound the same, but they are actually different parts of speech. Continue reading to discover whether you should use reel or real, depending on how you are using the word.

What is the Difference Between Reel and Real?

In this article, I will compare reel vs. real. I will then use each of them in a sentence to illustrate their proper context, and I will explain an easy mnemonic to help you remember when to use real or reel in your own writing.

When to Use Reel

reel versus realWhat does reel mean? Reel can be a noun or a verb.

As a noun, a reel is a spool of long, narrow material wound around a cylinder. Film, fishing line, and masking tape all come in reels. Here are two examples.

  • A standard full length movie might be contained on as many as five reels of film.
  • Modern fishing reels have complex attachments to aid in casting and winding up fishing line.
  • Evans’s study, with cabinets for his stereo equipment and reel-to-reel tape recorder, is where he wrote several books, including “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine” and “My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.” –The Wall Street Journal

As you can see from the example above, the correct spelling is a reel-to-reel recorder.

As a verb, reel has two senses. In one sense, it means to wind into a spool, as with fishing line. Here is an example.

  • The fish was too big, and Rob could not reel it in.

Reel can also mean to stagger or stumble. See the following sentence for an example.

  • The boxer’s right hook sent his opponent reeling.

When to Use Real

Definition of real definition and definition of reel definitionWhat does real mean? Real is an adjective. It means having the quality of existence or truthfulness, making it a synonym of true, actual, or significant in most contexts. Here are some examples.

  • Real life is much different from fairy tales.
  • Protests raise awareness about social issues, but it takes a more robust form of activism to enact real change.
  • For a while, none of us knew if Starhawk Design Studio was a real business or some kind of elaborate millennial art project, perhaps an ironic pop-up installation commenting on nineties nostalgia (and that decade’s fervent sixties nostalgia) and our deep longing for the run-down head shops where the nag champa was plentiful and they never asked for I.D. –The New Yorker

In mathematics, a real number is one of an infinite set of quantities that can be represented by a point on the number line. For a more detailed description of the concept of real numbers, you should consult a math tutor. Here is an example of real numbers in a sentence:

  • -6, 13/2, √2, π, and 5 are all real numbers.

Sometimes, in dialectical speech, real is used as a substitute for the adjective very. This usage is widespread but incorrect. Really and very are considered standard in these situations. Use them instead.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define real and define reelHere is helpful trick to remember real vs. reel in your writing.

Real is only an adjective, whereas reel is either a noun or a verb. Since real is only ever used as an adjective, you can remember to reserve it for these contexts because it is spelled with an A- the same letter that can be found at the beginning of the word adjective.


Is it reel or real? The two words, despite sounding the same when spoken, do not overlap in any of their uses.

  • Real is an adjective that means existing or significant. It also has a mathematical sense where it refers to quantities on a number line.
  • Reel can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means a spool of long, narrow material like film or string. As a verb, it sometimes means to wind around a spool, like one does when fishing. It can also mean to stagger or stumble, like one does when one has taken a blow to the head.

You can remember that real is an adjective since both real and adjective are spelled with an A.

If you still need help, you can consult this article to review the differences between these words.