Canvas vs. Canvass: Surveying the Difference and Usage

If someone asks you to canvass the neighborhood, you may pause in confusion. Shouldn't it be canvas? Would you be right if you corrected their spelling? Does it really matter how you spell canvas or canvass, or are these words interchangeable?

Canvas - sailboat sails vs Canvass - Woman filling survey Canvas - sailboat sails vs Canvass - Woman filling survey
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Canvas and Canvass Are Different Words

The homophones canvas and canvass both refer to a covering of some kind. But their exact definitions are quite different.

  • canvas - a heavy cloth
  • canvass - to survey an area

You always use canvas as a noun to describe a piece of heavy fabric. However, canvass can be a verb ("to canvass a neighborhood") or a noun ("we finished a neighborhood canvass") when referring to the act of surveying or spreading information.

Why Do They Look So Similar?

Canvas and canvass have an interesting word origin. Canvas comes from the Latin word cannibis (hemp), and describes a "sturdy cloth made from hemp." The word canvass came about years later; it refers to "the act of throwing a canvas." Its figurative meaning of surveying an area for information came even later and was spelled with the extra "s" to differentiate the verb canvass from the noun canvas.

Canvas Is Fabric

You're most likely to see (and use) the noun canvas in everyday speech. When used with the item it's describing, it becomes a compound noun, such as "canvas sail" or "canvas bag." Additional examples of canvas in a sentence include:

  • Vincent Van Gogh's painting style involved thick, visible strokes on canvas.
  • A canvas tent is sure to keep us dry if it rains while we're camping.
  • While traditional canvas was made with hemp, modern versions include synthetic fibers.
  • We need to patch the canvas sail before we can take the boat out of the harbor.
  • My new canvas bag is waterproof, so my spilled coffee wiped right off.

Canvass Is Surveying

Think of spreading a canvas over a large area and covering it. That's what canvass means: to blanket an area. Canvass is a common term in the context of elections and public communication and can describe spreading information, gathering opinions or searching for something in a given area. For example:

  • Our search party plans to canvass the area where the child went missing.
  • Let's canvass the class to get their opinion on the new dress code.
  • The campaign canvassed 4,000 people to determine whether their candidate had enough support to run for office.
  • The police canvassed the crowd to see who had witnessed the accident.
  • Election volunteers canvassed the neighborhood with information about the upcoming vote.
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When Is Canvas a Verb?

If the sentences with canvass look incorrect, you may have been using canvas incorrectly. Canvas can only function as a verb when it literally refers to covering an item in canvas. You can canvas a wooden frame or a piece of art when you're putting a piece of heavy fabric on the frame or the art. Otherwise, you're probably looking for the word canvass.

Canvassing the World of Grammar

Confusing word pairs such as canvas and canvass can result in unnecessary spelling mistakes. You may think you're using the correct word, but that extra "s" may send the wrong message! Avoid more spelling slips with some helpful tips on improving your spelling.