Cite vs. Site vs. Sight: Making the Difference Clear

Do you cite or site sources in an essay? What's the difference between site and sight in a sentence? Even though these three words sound exactly the same, they have totally different meanings. Learn when you should use site vs. cite vs. sight when writing with these definitions and examples.

cite versus site versus sight cite versus site versus sight

Cite: To Give Someone Credit

Of these three words, cite is the only one that only functions as a verb. It comes from the Latin citare and the Old French citer — "to call." The most common modern definition refers to citing one's sources when using a quote or idea from another person's writing. For example:

  • Please cite at least two reference sources in your bibliography.
  • Terry's lawyer cited several similar cases as precedent in his closing statement.
  • The newly elected president cited Abraham Lincoln as his inspiration for running for office.

Another common use of cite is when you praise someone for doing a good job, especially when their job is dangerous. Examples of this usage include:

  • Officer Warwick was cited for his quick thinking in rescuing the hostages.
  • The mayor is citing the entire fire department after they saved City Hall from burning down.
  • Our CEO cited Paula for her hard work and honorable ethics.

Several other words use cite as their root word. Recite (to repeat something that was written), citation (the noun form of cite) and incite (to call to action) are a few examples that use cite as a root word.

Site: A Location

Site, which comes from the Latin situs ("position"), functions as both a noun and a verb. You're probably most familiar with the noun form, especially when it's used in a compound word to describe a location. For example:

  • The noise from the bulldozers and cranes at the construction site disturbs all the neighbors.
  • You can find all our contact information on our company's website.
  • Marjory's favorite campsite is between the river and the fishing pond.

However, you can also use site as a verb. The verb form is most common in architecture and civil engineering and refers to placing a position or location. Some examples include:

  • The residential neighborhood was sited in the foothills, far away from the power plant.
  • City planners try to site playgrounds in convenient, safe areas.
  • We're siting a good area to build the next section of the freeway.

You'll also find the word when referring to something that is "on-site" (such as on-site laundry machines or an on-site office). Basically, if you're trying to figure out which of these words means "a place," you're looking for site.

Sight: The Ability to See

Unlike cite and site, sight does not come from Latin. It comes from the Old English gesiht and the German sicht, both of which mean "ability to see." (The Latin root for "seeing" is vid, as in the word vision.) Today, sight means both the sense of seeing and the thing you are seeing, such as in the word sightseeing.

You can use sight as a noun and a verb, but like site, it's more commonly used as a noun. For example:

  • Helen Keller lost both her hearing and her sight when she was a baby.
  • Stay out of sight until I tell you to come out.
  • The lights of Las Vegas are quite a sight to see.

Another function of sight is the verb form, which means "to catch sight of" or "to aim." For example:

  • We sighted four owls and a hawk on our hiking trip.
  • The soldier sighted his rifle at the enemy vehicle.
  • It's important to sight your camera on the image you're trying to capture.

Compound nouns that include the word are insight (the ability to see inside oneself), foresight (the ability to see into the future) and eyesight (one's ability to see with their eyes). It's also present in several idiomatic phrases, such as "set your sights on your goal" and "you're out of sight."

Quick Tips to Remember the Difference

Still a little confused? If you need to make a quick decision on which word to use, focus on these key tips:

  • Making a citation? Use cite.
  • Would this place work as a campsite? Use site.
  • Are you talking about eyesight? Use sight.

Because these words are so different, it's best to know which one you intend to use. Your spellchecker might not notice if you use the wrong word, but your teacher — or your readers — definitely will!

Cite, Site and Sight are Homophones

Now that you know the different definitions and origins of cite vs. site and site vs. sight, you can tell that the only thing they have in common is their sound. That makes these three words homophones — words that are spelled differently and mean different things but are pronounced the same. Learn more about homophones with an explanation of break vs. brake. You can also check out more examples of homophones if you're curious about words that sound the same but function differently.

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