The Grammarphobia Blog

Staff memo

Q: I notice that you use the musical term “staff” in your recent post about the word “clef.” Why is it sometimes written “staff” and sometimes “stave”? Is the pronunciation different as well as the spelling? I always use “stave,” but I have no idea why.

A: The nouns “staff” and “stave” have several different meanings in modern English, besides the musical one that they share.

A “staff,” for example, may be a flag pole, the aides to a military commander, the employees of a private or public enterprise, a set of horizontal lines on which music is written, and so on.

A “stave” may be one of the curved pieces of wood used to make a barrel, a stanza of a poem, an alliterative letter in Old English verse, a set of horizontal lines on which music is written, etc.

In music, “staff” (it rhymes with “laugh”) and “stave” (it rhymes with “grave”) mean the same thing, though the term “staff” is much more popular: “musical staff,” 674,000 hits on Google; “musical stave,” 69,700 hits.

The word “staff” is also much, much older, dating back to the early days of Old English. In fact, “stave” originated hundreds of years later as a back-formation from “staves,” the original plural of “staff.” (A back-formation is a word formed by subtracting an element from an older one.)

When the Old English version of “staff” entered the language around 750, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant a “stick carried in the hand as an aid in walking or climbing.”

This sense of the word, according to the OED, is now “chiefly literary” (used, for example, in referring to a walking stick carried by a pilgrim).

The musical sense of the word, which developed in the mid-17th century, is defined in the OED as a “set of horizontal lines (now five in number) on which, and in the spaces between, notes are placed so as to indicate pitch.”

In “harmonic or concerted music,” the dictionary adds, “two or more staffs are used together, connected by a brace.”

The earliest written example of this usage (with “staves” used as the plural of “staff”) is from John Playford’s A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick for Song & Violl (1654):

“But for Lessons for the Organ, Virginalls, or Harp two staves of six lines together are required.”

When the word “stave” first showed up in the late 14th century, the OED says, it referred to a curved piece of wood used to make a cask or barrel.

As we’ve said, “staves” was the original plural of “staff,” but the singular “stave” didn’t take on its musical sense until the late 18th century.

The first citation in the OED for the musical term is from a 1786 music dictionary that says the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo (991-1033) “is said by some to have first used the stave.”

The OED lists both “staves” and “staffs” as plural forms of “staff,” but it adds that “staves is now somewhat archaic, exc. in certain senses in which a singular form stave has been developed from it.” We assume the exceptions include the musical usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list “staff” as the principal entry for the musical term, and include both “staffs” and “staves” as plural forms of “staff.”

We generally use “staff” for the set of musical lines, but you should feel free to continue using “stave.” They’re both fine.

As for some of the other meanings of “staff,” here’s when they first showed up in print: a flag pole (sometime before 1613); the officers assisting a military commander (1700); the employees of a public or private enterprise (1837).

And here’s when a couple of other meanings of “stave” first appeared in writing: a stanza of a poem (1659); an alliterative letter in Old English verse (1894).

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