Balk - baulk

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Historically speaking, the two spellings balk and baulk are interchangeable - the difference does not matter. Burchfield's Fowler suggests that the current difference is largely transatlantic. In American English, balk is more usual for the noun; in the UK, baulk is preferred. The basic meaning is of a strip of land that divides two areas - most commonly in the recent past used of the strip of land at the end of a field where a plough turns; or the line on a snooker table behind which a player starting a frame may not aim his shot. OED on the other hand gives as the headword of its definition both spellings: "balk, baulk, n.1". This shows the fuzziness of the line between them. OED prefers balk generally, using the spelling baulk for the technical term in snooker or billiards.

The verb 'to balk' is derived from the noun. It has several meanings, all to do with obstacles, either intransitively refusing, or transitively making difficult. A horse may balk at an obstacle (like a balk in ploughing) - that is, it refuses to pass the obstacle; or a person may balk at a challenge. (Note the intransitive usage, and the preposition at.) Alternatively, an enemy might balk me of my desires - that is, may obstruct me (object) of something I want. For all meanings of the verb, the better spelling is balk.

The net result of the advice above is unclear. I suggest you use balk if you are writing in academic English in the UK (unless you are writing about snooker), and cite OED if you are challenged

The Guardian Stylebook lays down "balk obstruct, pull up, stop short; baulk area of a snooker table".

Note on pronunciation: both balk and baulk may be pronounced with the 'l' either silent or sounded, i.e., either IPA: /bɔːk or bɔːlk/.