Commonly confused words: rite and right

Rite of passage or right of passage?

Rite or right of passage?

The answer is: it depends! Either can be correct, depending on what you mean.


A rite is a ritual of some type. These days, you mostly hear the word in connection with religious ceremonies: the rites of baptism, marriage rites, funeral rites or, at this time of year, Easter or Passover rites.

Rites do not have to be religious. A rite of passage is basically a ceremony that marks a significant change or moment in your life, generally to do with moving from one stage to another, such as from child to adult. Weddings can be seen as both a religious rite and a rite of passage (as two people cease to be single and become formally recognised as a couple). Birthdays are actually a rite of passage; we give some more significance than others.


The sense of right that is often confused with rite is the meaning of entitlements; the things that are due to an individual or group. You have legal rights, you have human rights, you have rights at work: those are all things that you can expect. Often, these abstract rights mean the way in which you should be treated.

As our world has grown more prosperous and as travel has become easier, it has become more and more common for young people to travel overseas when they have finished either school or university. It is theoretically possible to regard this travel as a right of passage or something due to a young person to demonstrate that they have become an adult. But to me, this is stretching to provide a meaning for a misused term (in the language of earthmoving, it’s backfilling). This post-study travel is really more a rite of passage, something that marks the fact the young person is entering a different stage of life.

Right of passage actually means something much more mundane: that you are allowed to travel somewhere. The meaning overlaps with being owed a trip, but it is not the same. Your passport is a document that gives you right of passage: it enables you to leave one country and enter another. Right of entry is another travel-connected phrase but no one ever seems to think that should be rite of entry (thank goodness).

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Photos: passport and boarding pass by Nicole Harrington, wedding by Josh Applegate, 1st birthday cake by Freestocks, 21st balloons by Kortnee Greenfield, all on Unsplash; young woman at airport by Jan Vasek from Pixabay.

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