Half-Mast or Half-Staff – What’s the Difference?

In many nations, flags will periodically be flown about halfway up the flagpole, especially on the anniversaries of important military engagements or the deaths of public figures.

Without knowing the meaning behind this symbol, it might be confusing to see flags flying so low on their poles. It would be even more confusing to think about how to describe this tradition.

In English, flags flown below the top of the flagpole are said to be either half-staff or half-mast. These phrases describe the same practice, but there are specific contexts for when each would be more appropriate.

Continue reading to learn more about this phrase.

What is the Difference Between Half-Mast and Half-Staff?

In this post, I will compare half-staff vs. half-mast, and I will use these expressions in sentences to show you how they should appear in context.

I will also include a mnemonic that you can use to help you distinguish between these two variants.

When to Use Half-Staff

half-mast versus half-staffWhat does half-staff mean? When a flag is flown half-staff, it signifies a mournful salute, often for fallen soldiers, police officers, or other service members. It refers to a flag flown below the top of a flagpole, usually about halfway to the top. The expression functions as an adjective or an adverb in sentences.

A flag flown at a spot below the top of a flagpole began to carry this symbolism in the 17th century, although the phrase itself predates the imagery by a few decades.

Here are a few example sentences,

  • When a police officer was killed in the line of duty, public buildings in the city flew their flags half-staff.
  • Margery’s daughter asked why the flags were being flown at half-staff as they drove past, but Margery didn’t know.
  • The administration at the time said he chose to honor the officers in other ways, including attending a memorial service, meeting with families and flying the White House flags at half-staff. –The New York Times

A flag is said to be ­half-staff only if it is flies on land (see why below).

When to Use Half-Mast

Definition of half-staff definition and definition of half-mast definitionWhat does half-mast mean? The phrase half-mast means the same thing as half-staff. It refers to a flag flown below the top of a flagpole to indicate mourning.

Half-mast, however, refers to flags on ships or naval bases. These are the only places where flags are flown on something called a mast. A mast is a tall beam on many ships onto which a sail or other navigational equipment may be secured.

Since masts are only found on ships and naval bases, it makes sense that the term half-mast would only be used in these instances.

For example,

  • The flag on the S.S. Arizona was flown at half-mast in remembrance of the recently deceased former admiral.
  • The flags in the sailboat race were all flying half-mast in honor of the racer who died in last year’s competition.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define half-staff and define half-mastHalf-staff and half-mast each mean the same thing, but they are used to describer difference circumstances.

  • Half-mast is used specifically for flags flying on ships and naval bases.
  • Generally, half-staff is used anywhere else.

Since only ships have masts, you can easily remember to save half-mast for situations involving ships or other naval installations.

Summary

Is it half-mast or half-staff? Half-mast and half-staff are both phrases that refer to flags flown below the top of the flagpole as a symbol of mourning or respect.

  • Half-mast specifically refers to flags on ships or naval bases.
  • Half-staff refers to flags anywhere else, like civilian structures or other buildings on land.

Given that this distinction makes logical sense, remembering half-mast vs. half-staff should be an easy task.

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