If you're taking roll, are you counting the attendance in a classroom, or are you stealing a small piece of bread — or both? The difference between role and roll is more significant than a small spelling change. One word has multiple meanings, while the other only has one definition and function in a sentence.
Role and roll are homophones because they sound the same but have different meanings. Mixing them up is a common error, but confusing these small words can make a big difference.
- Role means one thing: the part you play.
- Roll means several things: the act of spinning; material spun into a cylinder; a small piece of bread; a list of names; and more.
Unless you're talking about someone's role in a play, a company or a project, you probably want to use the word roll. Chances are, one of its definitions will fit your needs.
There's a reason role and roll sound so similar. They both come from the Latin word rota, meaning "wheel." Of the two, roll is older and refers to the act of moving in a circular motion, as well as items in the shape of a wheel.
In French, the Latin rota became rolle, referring to a rolled-up piece of parchment or paper. When a piece of parchment contained lines for an actor to read, it was called a roule (or rôle). The English word role, which specifically refers to the part someone plays, comes from this French usage.
The noun role only refers to one's part or position in a group. Traditionally, role described an actor's part in a play, but it also applies to one's position in a company or group project. The duties that the person performs in their role are known as responsibilities.
Examples of role in a sentence include:
- Sixty women auditioned for the role of Juliet at the local theater.
- My role in the company is the technology expert.
- What was your role in this conflict?
- The role of a teacher can't be replaced by a computer.
- Tonight, the role of Vanessa will be played by the actress's understudy.
If you're not talking about someone's position, you probably want to use the word roll. Like role, roll can function as a noun, but it's most commonly used as a verb in sentences.
When functioning as a noun, roll can refer to "material that has been rolled up into a cylinder or ball." For example:
- Please replace the toilet paper roll when you get a chance.
- How many rolls of tape do you need to wrap these presents?
- These freshly baked dinner rolls smell delicious.
Another use of roll as a noun is to describe the act of rolling. For example:
- The gymnast performed a perfect backward roll on the mat.
- When I arrived at the building, I slowed to a roll.
Finally, roll can mean "a list or catalog" (from the act of unrolling a scroll to read a list). For example:
- We need to review the voter rolls before the next election.
- The university rolls prove that the suspect never attended the school.
The verb form of roll can indicate the act of spinning (as in the movement of wheels). Examples of roll functioning as a verb in this context include:
- You can't just roll through a stop sign without stopping.
- The basketball rolled down the court until a player picked it up.
- Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until it's flat and smooth.
When combined with the preposition up, roll can describe the act of rolling something flat into a cylinder shape. For example:
- Please roll up your canvas and place it on the art shelf.
- We rolled up the old carpet before bringing in the new one.
- If you roll up your paper, you can make a telescope.
One reason for the confusion between role and roll is that both words appear in many common idioms and expressions. However, as in everyday usage, roll appears in more expressions than role.
For example, you spell the word role when describing:
- a bit role (a small part)
- role model (someone to look up to)
- role-playing (to play a part)
- the role I was born to play (the perfect position for me)
However, the word is roll in these contexts:
- a rolling stone gathers no moss (active people avoid responsibility)
- all rolled up in one (many traits included in one package)
- bankroll a project (financially funding a project)
- heads will roll (punishment is coming)
- high roller (someone who spends a lot of money)
- let's roll (let's go)
- ready to roll (ready to start)
- roll the dice (to take a chance, or literally roll dice)
- roll out the red carpet (to make a guest feel welcome)
- roll up (to arrive)
- roll up your sleeves (get ready to work)
- roll with the punches (to keep going despite hardships)
- a roll of thunder (the sound of a thunderclap)
- rolling a drunk person (to steal from a drunk person)
- rolling in the aisles (laughing very hard)
- rolling over in their grave (disgracing someone who has died)
- rolling your eyes (an annoyed expression)
- rolls off the tongue (easy to say)
- slow your roll (don't overreact)
One of the trickier instances of role vs. role is in the term "roll call" (or "calling roll"). It refers to the act of counting attendance in a class or group by reading from a list of names. Many people think that the phrase should be "role call." However, from the definition of roll that means "list," the phrase should be spelled "roll call." Spelling it "role call" is incorrect.
It may seem like the difference between role and roll is so insignificant that mixing them up doesn't matter. However, once you realize that role has only one meaning and roll has many, it should be easier to tell them apart. For more small words with big differences, check out a guide to fair vs. fare.