Riffle vs. Rifle: Is this one all shot to pieces?

Running across constructions like these is fairly common:

He rifled the pages until he came to the entry on 15th century firearms.
She rifled through the desk looking for the incriminating file.
He rifled through her purse, but couldn’t find the keys.

Using this word — rifled — to indicate a quick, often frantic or furtive, search through something seems to be a popular choice. It’s a colorful and more intense synonym for “searched” that writers often reach for.

However, it’s problematic. In some situations, the word rifled is the correct one. But in others, the better choice is riffled (with two f‘s). One f or two? How do you know which to choose, and does it really matter?

I learned the distinction (in a less thorough explanation than presented here) fairly early in my writing life, and the rifled/riffled problem has been one that’s stuck with me. I don’t use either word often, but I notice them when others use them. In my experience, rifled has so overtaken riffled in colloquial use that when I began this post (prompted by spotting yet another misuse) I intended simply to note the distinction, and then advise that the word should be skunked — or even suggest that rifled has so completely overtaken riffled, that riffled should be retired altogether.

(And note, please, that any uses of rifled relating to gun barrels and bullets are not part of this discussion.)

But, oh, the beauty of research! Delving uncovered some things I hadn’t expected about rifled and riffled. Here in a nutshell, for your edification, is some of that research.

First of all, the words do have distinct meanings, but in contemporary English the distinction has blurred. Rifled should be used to show a rough search of something (that ‘frantic’ idea I brought in, above), whereas something riffled is something that’s manipulated quickly — as the pages of a book or a deck of cards could be.

Rifled seems to be the older word, having entered English toward the end of the 14th century. But at that time it had the (arguably) cruder meaning of plunder or pillage, or robbery. The definition of a search or examination arose later (in the 16th century), while the definition I’ve used at the beginning of this post — to make a vigorous or thorough search through something, esp. with intent to take or steal — seems to first arise near the end of the 19th century. (All definitions and usage dates here are from OED.)

Riffled first shows up in the second half of the 17th century, but none of the typical uses have much to do with searches or page turning: they relate to scratching, ruffles, raffles, transient water features, mining terminology, and plowing. The riffling of cards or pages comes centuries later (in the 1860s for cards; the 1950s for pages), but seems to have taken hold quickly.

Where does all of the above get us — what does it tell us about the distinction between rifled and riffled?

I don’t want to seem like I’m throwing up my hands, but from personal experience (as an editor and as an instructor) I can’t definitively say that I’ve seen riffled used correctly more than a handful times in the past decade. Rifled is the correct term for a rough search but, in colloquial American English, it’s also become the first choice for searching through pages. The “correct” (double f) form seems to be so rare in print that it stands out as unusual when I come across it.

Of course, this shouldn’t stop you from using both words correctly. This has all the hallmarks of being a quixotic rear-guard action, but I still recommend that you use riffled  when the hasty search you’re describing has to do with books or other papers. Use rifled when the search involves something more extensive than a book — a desk, a wardrobe, a cupboard, a room, etc. If the search is particularly disruptive or violent, you might want to use rifled, regardless of the objects being described. Your more knowledgeable readers will thank you for using the correct word.

To wrap up, I’d like to give the Brits a special note of praise for positive discrimination when it comes to rifled and riffled: the online searches and comparisons I’ve done are by no means authoritative, but they strongly suggest that writers in the UK are much more careful about the distinction between the two words, and they use riffled correctly much more often than American writers. Jolly good show!


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to Riffle vs. Rifle: Is this one all shot to pieces?

  1. But I take it that “rifled” doesn’t have to mean “with intent to steal.” So that I could “rifle through a file cabinet of papers” only because I was in a hurry to catch a train and not because I intended to steal a document.

    • I agree. Neither word specifically has to include an intent to steal. “Rifled” (one f) has that in its original definition, and tends to often be used with an implication of theft or seizure. Of the two, I’d say that “riffled” (two f’s) is the more neutral. Forced to make a choice with your example sentence, I’d use “riffle” if it was a quick, cursory search, but “rifle” if I intended to stress that the quick search was violent or disruptive. However, I’d do that with the knowledge that 90% or more of my readers wouldn’t notice how many f’s were used, nor have any idea why it mattered to me.

      • Thanks for your reply. I looked up this matter because twice (including once very recently) I have heard people use “riffle,” but thought they were merely mispronouncing “rifle.” I didn’t know until today that “riffle” even existed, I confess.

  2. Kevin Bryant says:

    Had convinced myself that one “rifles” through somebody else’s stuff, but “riffles” through his own. Happy to learn better. Thanks.

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