Easily Confused Words: Deficit vs. Deficient

Deficit and deficient are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary, but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted, or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Deficit (pronounced “def-uh-sit”) is a noun. It means the amount that an organization falls short of having a balanced budget. A balanced budget is when incoming revenue meets expenditures. For example, many US stores operate at a deficit for most of the year, traditionally Black Friday was their big sales weekend to finally catch up. With many sales happening online, stores have had to change tactics with constant sales, coupons, etc.

A deficit can also mean a weakness, a challenge, or a major shortcoming.

Deficient (pronounced “duh-fish-shunt”) has multiple meanings.

  • As an adjective, it describes something that is underperforming or inadequate.
  • As a noun, it is used to refer to someone with a learning disability or other mental (not psychological) challenges. I admit I don’t hear this usage often.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Delphinius was running the numbers for the family’s shoe business. He calculated the books again, again, and again. He didn’t like what he was seeing in the numbers. Each time he repeated the process, he was hoping to discover a better outcome. But to his chagrin, each time they showed the store was operating at a tremendous deficit. Actually, it had been for months. It was time to make a tough decision: they would have to lay several staff members off.

For a family business, it was hard to let anyone go. His dad had liked his employees very much, but his health was now failing. The now-grown kids had to step in and take over. Delphinius looked at the sales figures to decide which employees were the most deficient in making money. This wasn’t a decision that could be made on a emotional business. It looked like Daphne, Hilda, and Giovanni would be asked to leave before the end of the year.


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