Defuse or Diffuse the Situation?

Native speakers often learn phrases by ear before they learn the written words that comprise them. Even if you’re not sure which word and spelling is correct in the phrase, you’ve probably heard news casters, your mother, your teachers mention something about a tense situation which needs to be addressed. Well let’s get this down once and for all. Is it defuse the situation or diffuse the situation?



Defuse, made up of the parts “de” and “fuse”, refers to the act of removing a fuse from something, specifically something like a bomb. The fuse is the piece of string or fabric that leads the fire into the center of the bomb, causing the reaction with the gun powder and the explosion. Taking out the fuse means that the fire cannot reach the center of the bomb, and it’s essentially useless (at least less explosive).

Diffuse, on the other hand, means to spread a material out over a wider area. Scent diffusers are popular on department store shelves as the latest trend in aromatherapy, more sightly than incense burners and safer than scented candles. They take the scent from a concentrated source and spread it throughout the room. Diffuse can work as both an adjective and a verb, meaning we might say the scent is diffuse in the room where it has been diffused.


This means that when you’re talking about a tense situation where you’d like the tension to go away, you’re going to want to write defuse the situation. You’re taking the potentially dangerous element out of the equation, leaving the gunpowder with nowhere to go.

You have to be careful, because otherwise you might end up diffusing the situation, and spreading all that bad emotion throughout a larger area than intended.


Are there any other word pairs that you often get mixed up? Have you ever read an article in a publication where a bomb was diffused rather than defused? Share your stories in the comments.

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3 Responses

  1. Cole says:

    The number of times I’m beginning to realize I’ve made this error is frightening. Thanks for clarifying!

  2. Stella says:

    but if you want to diffuse the tension, is that defuse or diffuse? Because I always assumed it was diffuse, as in, make the situation less intence, spread the tension a little bit so it wasn’t quite so… tense.

  3. Blues says:

    I often get ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ mixed up in the term ‘bear in mind’… I still don’t know which one is right xD

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