Allude - allusion - elude - illusion

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Because these words sound the same in normal hurried speech, they are sometimes confused. Here are some notes to reduce any confusion you might feel.

  • The verb 'to allude' means 'to refer to' in an indirect way. Sometimes this is more conscious than others. 'He alluded at the end of his speech to the heroic figure of Winston Churchill' might be a report of an ambitious politicician who is deliberately trying to associate himself with a famous Prime Minister. At other times this can be almost subconscious; 'The title of T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land is in itself an allusion to Sir James Fraser's anthropological work, The Golden Bough, in which ancient fertility myths are related to the image of a land which no longer bears crops'. In both these examples, 'to allude' is to make a reference less strongly than a direct quotation of a source in academic writing.
  • The noun from 'to allude' is allusion: I made an allusion above to T.S. Eliot. It is fair to use the adjective allusive of Eliot, a large part of whose writing seems designed to show off how much he has read.
  • The verb 'to elude' means 'to escape'. 'The footballer eluded his marker', or 'the girl eluded her pursuer'. We frequently see it used with abstract nouns: 'The criminal eluded capture', or 'your meaning eludes my understanding'. The adjective is elusive; there is no noun in normal English.
  • On the other hand, there is no verb in normal English related to the noun illusion, which means 'a false (or 'a deceptive') appearance'. 'Great athletes give the illusion that what they do is easy'; people who are lost in the Sahara Desert are said to have an illusion that they can see water. The related adjective is illusory: 'The actor who played Macbeth made the audience believe it could see the illusory dagger'.