Trick or Treat! A Not-So-Spooky Guide to Spelling the Phrase

When October 31 rolls around, you hear the clarion call resounding throughout your neighborhood: "Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!" It’s a pretty intense request, and not a single “please” in sight! But trick or treat has a surprisingly in-depth history, both as a phrase and an activity.

Trick or treat, trick-or-treating, and trick-or-treater on an image with parts of speech and definitions from article. Trick or treat, trick-or-treating, and trick-or-treater on an image with parts of speech and definitions from article.
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What Does It Mean To Say “Trick or Treat”?

Trick or treat is a greeting used by kids as they go door-to-door in the pursuit of candy on Halloween night. It’s a bit of a weird phrase when you think about it, but the idea here is that the child will perform some sort of mischievous trick or prank on you unless you provide a treat in the form of sweets or candy.

Much like carving jack-o’-lanterns and other Halloween traditions, trick-or-treating has gotten a bit tamer in its intent. These days, the threat of a trick is gone, and kids usually get their treats, regardless.

How Do You Spell “Trick or Treat”?

When you’re writing out trick or treat, you don’t need to overthink it. It doesn’t require much special treatment. It’s usually written as a standalone greeting, so make sure you capitalize the first “T” if you're writing it as one. You can also add an exclamation point (Trick or treat!).

  • Trick or treat! Please fill our bags with delicious candy!
  • I wasn’t prepared for trick or treat this year, so all I had to handout was packets of gum and mini bottles of hand sanitizer.

Where Did “Trick or Treat” Come From?

It’s hard to say when exactly we got the phrase trick or treat or who was the first person to even say it. Some historians suggest that variations of trick or treat date as far back as the 1920s, appearing in Canadian newspapers. The concept of trick or treat was seen in the 1920s in the U.S. too. However, in the states, the earliest written mention of the exact phrase trick or treat dates back to 1938 in the L.A. Times where they wrote "‘Trick or treat!’ is the Halloween hijacking game hundreds of Southern Californian youngsters will play tomorrow night as they practice streamlined versions of traditional Allhallows Eve pranks."

By the 1950s, trick or treat became popular enough to appear in a Peanuts comic strip and a Disney cartoon called Trick or Treat.

Using Trick-or-Treat as a Verb or Adjective

Thanks to the confusing rules of English, you have trick-or-treat as the verb form of trick or treat. That means the only thing separating the verb from the greeting is a couple of hyphens. This also gives you the past tense trick-or-treated and the present participle trick-or-treating.

  • I trick-or-treat with my mom and big brother every year.
  • We trick-or-treated last night and were super sleepy because of it, but at least we had several bags of candy.
  • Everyone is trick-or-treating right now, we need to hurry before all the candy is gone. 

Trick-or-treat can also act as an adjective when it precedes a noun that might be involved with or related to the act of trick-or-treating.

  • The trick-or-treat bags were hanging by the door and ready to go for later tonight.
  • Even though we had a great haul of chocolate bars, lollipops, and gummy candies, we were so happy to change out of our trick-or-treat costumes at the end of the night.
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What Is Trick-or-Treating?

While trick or treat is the greeting, trick-or-treating is the actual activity of going house-to-house on Halloween for delicious sweets. This usually starts at or slightly before sunset. Participating houses will usually have decorations. Some areas may have trick-or-treating events at large malls or shopping centers for increased safety.

How Do You Spell “Trick-or-Treating”?

Trick-or-treating can be a present participle verb and a gerund (a verb that acts as a noun). When writing this phrase out, use hyphens between each word (but don't capitalize unless it's the beginning of a sentence). This is because the words act as a whole phrase. 

It’s not “tricking or treating”; it’s trick-or-treating.

  • Even as we got older, trick-or-treating remained the best part of Halloween.
  • We had developed a whole system and route for trick-or-treating to maximize our candy haul while minimizing walking time.

How Do You Spell “Trick-or-Treater”?

Trick-or-treater, meaning a person partaking in the activity of trick-or-treating, is also hyphenated. Remember, you want to keep the phrase together because it’s not “tricker or treater.” It’s trick-or-treater.

  • I wanted to be the “good” house this year, so I stocked up on full-sized candy bars for the trick-or-treaters.
  • Every trick-or-treater that came to the house tonight was so polite.

Older Traditions Related to Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating as an activity actually has roots in several other traditions that involved going door-to-door and asking for something.

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Guising

Guising, which comes from the word disguise, is a Scottish tradition that involves kids going door-to-door in disguise and telling a joke or story or singing a song. In return, the homeowners give kids food or sweets.

Mumming

The English had a variation of this known as mumming or mummering, likely derived from the Old French word momeur, referring to a jester or actor in a mask. Also known as mummers’ plays, this is an old Christmas tradition that involves a group in costume going door-to-door and holding informal performances that included plays, songs, jokes, and dancing.

Souling

A similar tradition was souling. This initially started with impoverished families visiting richer families and promising to pray for their dead relatives. In return, the richer families would provide pastries called soul cakes. This eventually changed to kids going door-to-door to ask for money or food.

The exact origin of the term souling isn’t known. It may have come from the folk etymology for sole as the people souling were often on foot. It may have also come from the word sowl, a fairly under-used word that referred to any sort of food, especially that eaten with bread.