Is It Straight Laced or Strait Laced?

When it comes to the phrase “straight laced” or “strait laced”, it can be confusing which spelling is correct. This common expression describes someone who is extremely strict, uptight, and conservative when it comes to morals and behavior. But should it be spelled “straight laced” or “strait laced”? Let’s take a deeper look at the origins and meanings behind this phrase to understand the proper spelling.

What Does the Phrase “Strait-Laced” Mean?

The term “strait-laced” means rigidly strict or severe in manner, behavior, or morals. A “strait-laced” person adheres very closely to rules and conventions without any flexibility or leniency. They have a no-nonsense attitude about upholding moral, ethical, and practical standards.

Some common synonyms for “strait-laced” include:

  • Puritanical
  • Rigid
  • Severe
  • Strict
  • Stringent
  • Uncompromising

For example:

  • Mary is so strait-laced in her beliefs that she refuses to watch R-rated movies.
  • John grew up in a very strait-laced household with a lot of strict rules.

So “strait-laced” conveys an excessively rigid and severe approach to ethics, principles, and propriety.

Origins of the Term “Strait-Laced”

The phrase “strait-laced” dates back to the early 1500s. It originated from the literal meaning of “strait”, which is an old-fashioned word for “tight” or “narrow”.

The use of “strait” to mean rigid morality comes from a comparison to tight lacing on clothing. Very tight lacing squeezes the body and restricts movement, just as a strict moral code restricts behavior and flexibility.

Over time, the meaning evolved beyond just physical tightness to suggest an inflexible, stern character or behavioral code.

By the 1700s, “strait-laced” became a common term to describe someone who laced their clothing or corset extremely tight not just for function but to conveying moral uprightness.

So the origins of “strait” referring to strictness and severity stem from the idea of moral restraint being like tight lacing on clothing.

Proper Spelling is “Strait-Laced”

Given the history and meaning behind this phrase, the proper spelling is “strait-laced” with “strait” meaning narrow or tight.

The spelling “straight-laced” is a very common variant, likely influenced by the similar sounding word “straight”. But “straight” does not have the same meaning of narrowness or tightness that lends itself to the metaphor behind “strait-laced”.

Most dictionaries and style guides affirm that “strait-laced” is the conventional and preferred spelling for this term. Some examples:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: The approved spelling is “strait-laced”.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: Lists “strait-laced” as the standard spelling.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary: Gives “strait-laced” as the primary spelling.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook: Endorses “strait-laced” and warns against confusing it with “straight”.

So while you may see “straight-laced” used colloquially, “strait-laced” is the proper spelling that directly references the metaphorical origins of this idiom. Using the “strait” spelling helps convey the restrictive implications of this phrase more clearly.

Examples of Proper Usage

Here are some examples of “strait-laced” used correctly in a sentence:

  • Mary was raised by very strait-laced parents who didn’t allow her to go to movie theaters.
  • John’s strait-laced demeanor made it hard for him to make friends in college.
  • The boarding school had a reputation for being highly strait-laced and imposing strict rules on students.
  • Jane was frustrated by her sister’s strait-laced beliefs about gender roles.
  • The cult was run by an extremely strait-laced leader who controlled every aspect of members’ lives.


In conclusion, the proper spelling is “strait-laced”, meaning rigidly strict or severe. This comes from the metaphor of moral restrictiveness being like tight lacing on clothing. The variant spelling “straight-laced” is commonly used but not considered standard. To clearly convey the origins and meaning of this idiom, “strait-laced” is the preferred and conventional spelling endorsed by dictionaries and style guides.

When Should You Use “Strait-Laced”?

Now that we’ve established “strait-laced” as the proper spelling, when is it appropriate to use this phrase? Here are some guidelines on effectively using “strait-laced”:

To Describe Strict Moral Codes

One of the most common uses of “strait-laced” is to describe strict, rigid moral principles or codes of behavior. For example:

  • Sarah was raised in a very strait-laced household where swearing was forbidden.
  • The professor’s strait-laced views on relationships didn’t resonate with his students.

If a community, family, or individual has a severe set of moral beliefs, “strait-laced” is an effective term to convey that inflexible ethical code.

To Characterize People as Rigid and Severe

“Strait-laced” can also directly describe someone’s personality when they are moralistic and severely strict about rules and propriety. For instance:

  • John is so strait-laced that he Thinks ripped jeans are inappropriate and offensive.
  • Mary comes across as strait-laced because she is inflexible about etiquette and proper behavior.

This usage directly assigns the quality of rigidity and severity to an individual based on their outlook and conduct.

To Critique Excessive Rigidity

“Strait-laced” often carries a slightly negative connotation, used to critique excessive rigidity. Compare:

  • Tom is fairly conservative.
  • Tom is strait-laced.

The second sentence implies Tom takes his conservatism too far. So “strait-laced” can subtly express disapproval of unreasonable inflexibility about rules and morals.

To Convey Repression

Given its metaphorical reference to tightness, “strait-laced” can depict strict principles or individuals as repressive and inhibiting:

  • Heather’s creativity was stifled by her strait-laced upbringing.
  • The boarding school felt stifling because of its strait-laced atmosphere.

This suggests the rigid rules limit and constrain someone, like the effect of tight lacing.

When Comparing Different Attitudes

You can use “strait-laced” effectively when contrasting it with openness and permissiveness:

  • Whereas Susan was strait-laced, her sister Emily was far more laid back.
  • The atmosphere at the Amish village was strait-laced compared to the freewheeling mountain town.

This highlights the differences between rigid and relaxed worldviews.

Common Related Words and Phrases

Since “strait-laced” describes someone or something that is excessively strict and severe, there are many related words and phrases that convey similar meanings:


Like the Puritans who imposed rigid moral laws, someone “puritanical” has very strict principles about right and wrong.

  • Martha is so puritanical in her beliefs that she thinks dancing is sinful.


“Priggish” means self-righteously moralistic and judgmental. A “prig” upholds propriety in a smug, arrogant manner.

  • Harold comes across as rather priggish when he criticizes people for minor breaches of etiquette.

Prim and proper

“Prim and proper” suggests an overly meticulous concern with correct behavior and morals.

  • Greta always strives to appear prim and proper, even criticizing how other women dress and act.


A “stickler” insists on rigid adherence to rules and standards without flexibility.

  • Our boss is a real stickler who won’t bend the dress code policy at all.

Goody two-shoes

A “goody two-shoes” has a self-righteous obsession with behaving well and following rules.

  • Stop being such a goody two-shoes and break some rules once in a while!


“Moralistic” means acting superior due to very strict morals, and seeking to impose those morals on others.

  • The town council took a moralistic stance in trying to ban racy books from the library.

The Variant Spelling “Straight-Laced”

The spelling “straight-laced” is commonly used as a variant of “strait-laced”, though it is not the preferred spelling. Where does “straight-laced” come from and when might people use it?

Connection to “Straight”

The spelling “straight-laced” derives from the word “straight”, meaning direct, honest, and following principles. For example:

  • She is a straight shooter who says exactly what she thinks.
  • He comes from a straight-edged background and has never done drugs.

So “straight” connotes uprightness and conformity.

Rise of “Straight-Laced”

In the early 1900s, “straight-laced” emerged as an alternative spelling of “strait-laced”, likely influenced by the similarity to “straight”.

While “strait” literally means tight or narrow, “straight” gives more of a sense of directness and alignment with principles.

“Straight-laced” became popularized to the point where many people assume it is the standard spelling today.

When People Use “Straight-Laced”

The spelling “straight-laced” is often used:

  • Casually in informal writing and speech
  • When the writer/speaker is unfamiliar with the “strait vs. straight” distinction
  • For stylistic preference – some writers feel “straight-laced” sounds more intuitive
  • To avoid confusing the homophones “strait” and “straight”

However, formal writing and editing conventions still recognize “strait-laced” as the standard form.

Difference in Meaning

Some linguistic analysts argue “straight-laced” has evolved to connote principled uprightness, while “strait-laced” carries stronger implications of rigidity and repression. However, this distinction is subtle, and the two terms are used interchangeably by most people.

Historical Basis for “Strait-Laced”

Since the origins of “strait-laced” lie in the metaphorical connection between moral restrictiveness and tight clothing, it is helpful to understand some relevant historical context:

Elizabethan Fashion

In Elizabethan times (1558-1603), wealthy women wore very tight lacing over their dresses to achieve a slender, “hourglass” silhouette. The ideal shape involved an extremely nipped-in waist.

This led to laced bodices or corsets that were tied as tightly as possible. Moving in such attire was very difficult.

Puritan Opposition to Decadence

During this same Elizabethan period, Puritans arose as a strict religious group that opposed the decadence of the time.

They advocated sober, modest dress without lavish accessories or revealing styles. Simply made garments avec tight lacing were preferred.

Linking Lacing with Morality

Given these dual influences, physical lacing became linked with moral lacing. Just as tight lacings restricted the body, moral stricture restricted behavior.

Excessively tight lacing expressed moral uprightness and restraint from sinful living.

This symbolic connection paved the way for “strait-laced” to become associated with rigid Puritan ideals.

Cultural Legacy

Even after outdated fashions changed, the idiom remained ingrained in language and culture. Being “strait-laced” represented not just clothing, but an entire strict code of living.

The metaphor of constricting lacing endured as representing disciplinary control over desires and indulgences. This cultural conception powered the longevity of the term.

So in many ways, the legacy of physical lacing underlies the “strait vs. straight” spelling issue in this phrase. The strait spelling preserves those evocative Elizabethan origins.

“Strait-Laced” vs. “Straight-Laced” – What Style Guides Say

Since both spellings are so common, what guidance do official style and grammar guides provide? Authoritative sources offer these recommendations about proper usage of “strait-laced” vs. “straight-laced”:


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary specifies “strait-laced” as the standard spelling for the term meaning excessively strict.

Associated Press Stylebook

The AP Stylebook maintains “strait-laced” is the proper spelling and cautions writers not to confuse it with “straight”.

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes “strait-laced” as the conventional spelling but allows for “straight-laced” as a prevalent variant. However, they recommend avoiding confusion by only using one spelling consistently.

Purdue Online Writing Lab

Purdue OWL advises using “strait-laced” in formal academic and professional writing to adhere to standard conventions, while acknowledging “straight-laced” in casual contexts.

American Heritage Guide

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style endorses “strait-laced” as the preferred spelling and calls “straight-laced” a mistake.

So while style guides acknowledge the wide use of “straight-laced”, they uphold “strait-laced” as the technically correct form for careful writers.

Should You Use “Strait-Laced” or “Straight-Laced”?

Given the evidence of meaning, etymology, and style guidance, here are some recommendations on when to use each spelling:

Use “Strait-Laced” When:

  • Writing for professional or formal purposes – this shows awareness of conventions
  • You are referencing the metaphorical origins of “strait” meaning narrow
  • Adhering to a style guide like AP or Chicago Manual of Style
  • You want to avoid confusion with the word “straight”

Use “Straight-Laced” When:

  • Writing informally or for entertainment purposes – this spelling is very widely recognized
  • You want to emphasize uprightness and principled strictness
  • You are quoting a source that uses “straight-laced”
  • Clarity is a priority and you don’t want readers stumbling over “strait” vs. “straight”

General Guidelines:

  • In published writing, use “strait-laced” for consistency with accepted rules.
  • In informal contexts, either spelling is fine as long as meaning is clear.
  • If using “straight-laced”, be mindful it is not the conventional form.
  • Aim for consistency within a given text rather than alternating spellings.

With this guidance in mind, you can decide which spelling best suits your purposes and audience. The main point is that both have become commonly accepted through usage, despite “strait-laced” having the historical basis.

Key Points to Remember

  • The idiom “strait-laced” means excessively strict moral codes or people, originating from the metaphor of physical lacing being linked to moral restrictiveness.
  • The standard spelling is “strait-laced”, with “strait” meaning narrow or tight. This reflects the metaphorical origins.
  • “Straight-laced” emerged as a variant spelling due to confusion with the similar word “straight”.
  • Style guides endorse “strait-laced” for formal writing, but accept “straight-laced” in informal contexts.
  • While some argue for a subtle distinction in meaning, the two spellings are widely used interchangeably.
  • For clarity, aim to use “strait-laced” in published materials and be consistent within any one text.

So the key takeaway is that the strictness evoked by “strait-laced” has its basis in restrictive lacing – making “strait” the most etymologically accurate spelling.


In summary, the conventional spelling for the idiom meaning excessively strict is “strait-laced”, derived from the word “strait” meaning tightness and narrowness. This reflects the metaphor linking physical lacing with moral restrictiveness in its origins. The variant spelling “straight-laced” became popularized due to the influence of the similar word “straight”, connoting principled directness and uprightness. While both spellings are now widely used, “strait-laced” remains the preferred form in published writing. When used thoughtfully, this colorful idiom enriched by historical context can add descriptive flair to discussions of morality, discipline, and character.


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