Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The Grammarist says I should use rife with rather than ripe with.

So far so good and I agree. But is there an exception for ripe with opportunity?

Googlefight overwhelmingly prefers ripe, and I like the imagery of an opportunity tree ripe with fruit.

Which is correct: ripe with opportunity or rife with opportunity?

share|improve this question
Having looked at the page, it seems (to me, at least) that the grammarist does endorse it (faint praise, but still...) by maintaining that an expression that talks of abundance should use "rife", leaving "ripe" for its normal role of expressing readiness. It's unarguably more precise to use "rife" unless you pluralise "opportunities" (you wouldn't say a tree was "ripe with apple"), but I doubt that anyone will misunderstand, whichever you use, and the only snobbish behaviour I've seen over it is on that grammarian guy's page. I think I'll give him a miss, in future. –  Mark Wallace Jul 11 '11 at 18:06
I'm confused about the Googlefight link. If I keep hitting the "make a fight" button, it sometimes gives me opposite results. Doing just a Google search: rife with opportunity = 4.4 million vs. ripe with opportunity = 20 million hits. –  Callithumpian Jul 11 '11 at 18:36
The fact that "ripe with opportunity" makes so much sense is the reason that this common error exists. It's the same reason people say "just desserts so often -- people getting the dessert they deserve just makes sense and fits the meaning of the phrase. –  Alan Jul 11 '11 at 19:24
@Joe: Given the degree of confusion over this—even on this site—maybe name-calling is not the wisest use of comment space. –  Callithumpian Jul 11 '11 at 19:59
@Joe: People use the words they're used to, the words their peers use, and the words their parents and teachers used. If that means that some use "ripe" where I believe it should be "rife", that's their choice, and extensive usage of the variant will (and has, it appears in this case) make it a part of the idiom. Calling someone an idiot for using different (but perfectly grammatical) words to those that you would use (no matter what was considered correct 200 years ago) is not good use of language. Play nice, eh? It's only words. –  Mark Wallace Jul 12 '11 at 12:54

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The two words are actually unrelated.

Rife appears to be a native Old English word meaning "abundant" or "generous", though it is related to a similar Old Norse word.

Ripe on the other hand shares a common Old English ancestry with "reap", with Germanic roots.

Obviously the concepts of there being an abundance of something and something being ready to be reaped are related, but the imagery seems to work better for "rife with" than "ripe with". Consider:

  1. "The region is rife with opportunities" = "There is an abundance of opportunities in the region."

  2. "The region is ripe with opportunities" =(?) "The region is ready for a harvest of opportunities."

There are two reasons why I would prefer the first version. First, it has a better sense that there really are a lot of opportunities available, as distinct from only enough to be worth harvesting. Second, the second version requires me to think of the region as a thing that can ripen, something I wouldn't naturally do, and implies that I harvest not the ripe region itself, but the opportunities that are part of it. We would normally talk of the apples being ripe, not the apple tree.

So is it correct to say "ripe with"? If you regard the meaning of "ripe" as having drifted enough to acquire the meaning of "rife", then yes; usage trumps dictionaries. English is rife with possibilities; however I don't think this is a ripe one. Personally it smacks of laziness, so I'm resisting it.

share|improve this answer
The rife has negative connotations thing is what originally persuaded me that ripe with opportunities was more correct. But the etymology shared by @Rhodri has persuaded me that I was wrong on both counts. My biggest takeaway, though, is that both variants of the phrase will lead enough of my readers to think that I am an idiot that I am better off leaving the phrase alone. That's a shame, because I like the phrase. –  Kevin Lawrence Jul 12 '11 at 22:30

Bryan Garner has this on rife vs. ripe:

While a tree may be rife (=abundant) with fruit, and that fruit may be ripe (=fully mature), the terms are unrelated. To confuse them is a surprisingly common malapropism—e.g.:

  • Iowa State . . . made an impression in Florida, ripe [read rife] with high school players coach Dan McCarney's staff would love to lure to Ames." Miller Bryce, "Worth Every Penny," Des Moines Register, 26 Aug. 2002, at C6

  • "The movie is ripe [read rife] with fond allusions to earlier 007 flicks." David Germain, "Top Picks for Fall Films," Cincinnati Post, 26 Sept. 2002, at 14.

  • "Exotic yet wholly approachable and ripe [read rife] with top-notch musicianship and infectious energy, this 'Revolution de Amor' is hard to resist." Scott D. Lewis, "CD of the Week," Oregonian (Portland), 30 Sept. 2002, at E1.

Garners's Modern American Usage

So it would appear that rife with opportunity is the correct phrase and ripe a common mistake*.

Google Books seems to support that rife with opportunity came first with this 1834 translation of an Italian poem:


Ripe with opportunities first appears in 1873, but the complete phrase was fields are ripe with opportunities, thus properly contextualizing the use of ripe.


*a mistake so common, perhaps a mishearing of rife, that dictionaries have since reported ripe with as acceptable?

share|improve this answer
I don't see how showing that some people are ignorant of the difference between ripe and ripe proves that the 'correct' version of OP's 'idiom' is rife. The earliest rife I found was 1903, but ripe was used at least as far back as 1875. And it doesn't rely on co-opting a 'normally-negative' word into a positive statement. I don't like the translation, is all. –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '11 at 23:39
...I also note that (as is customary), that translation relates "rife" to negative opportunities - for sin, deceit, and dark example. Hardly a good way to get a positive idiom off the ground! –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 0:31
This was the answer that persuaded me I was wrong to use ripe with but the answer left open a tiny hope that usage may eventually trump the dictionary. Power to the people! –  Kevin Lawrence Jul 12 '11 at 23:05
@Kevin Lawrence: So far as I can see, "the dictionary" simply means "Brian Garner". I'd sooner believe Google, with 268K hits for ripe with opportunity against only 151K for rife with opportunities. Garner looks like a lawyer-turned-populist/self-publicist to me. It's all hokum. –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 23:22
@Fumble: I refer you back to @Alan's comment up top re: just deserts vs. just desserts. Google not only shows us nearly 3 million hits more for the incorrect phrase, it also offers to "correct" your search to the wrong phrase if you enter just deserts with no quotes. Properly wielded, Google's a great tool, but I'd argue imagining it a usage authority is a misstep. –  Callithumpian Jul 13 '11 at 1:34

The grammarist wins; it's rife (in the "full of" sense) with opportunity.

Something that's rife with opportunity will have things that are ripe for the plucking, though.


Both usages are perfectly grammatical, and one should avoid trying to promote grammatical rules based on the meanings of words (i.e. the "use rife for nasty things" thing) -- grammar should confine itself as much as possible to the function of the words, not their meaning.

So the answer to the OP's question is "Use the wording you prefer, because they're both good English, and they both make sense". There is certainly no room for "Thou Shalt..." statements

However, I find it quite depressing that tempers and rudeness come into play, when discussing word usage, particularly in cases like this where no-one is wrong.

Being rude to someone with a smile on your face is entertaining for all, but getting hot under the collar over such trivia wastes everyone's time.

I hope it doesn't happen often, here.

share|improve this answer
QUite right Mark. I notice you use a sentence "ripe for ...". If you see my comment below Oke's, I can't even think of a meaningful sentence "Ripe with..." –  Joe Blow Jul 11 '11 at 19:26

This is sort of a spoonerism between the sayings

  1. when the moment is ripe - implying that the situation, if left alone for a bit, will "ripen" like a fruit.
  2. X is rife with Y - meaning "X is very full of Y".

The way the phrase you provided is structured, rife would be the more correct word. However, were it me, I'd restructure it to use phrasing 1 above (and remove the spoonerism).

share|improve this answer

I would disagree with The Grammarist. Indeed, the only preposition used with rife is with, but ripe with is also an acceptable form. NOAD defines both adjectives thus:

rife with full of

ripe with full of

As you can see, they are exact synonyms and can thus be used interchangeably.

Rife with opportunity is not ungrammatical, but the common idiomatic expression, however, is ripe with opportunity.

share|improve this answer
Oops. @Rhodri, thanks. I misread the question. I thought the Grammarist simply said rife always goes with with...didn't read well. –  Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 17:44
Oki, while "ripe with" is grammatically correct, it's hard to see a sentence where it could be used? "Ripe" just means: "ready". That's all it means. I can't really see any sentence you could construct "Ripe with _ _ _". For example "Ripe with sugar" makes no sense (would it mean "ripe because of the sugar"). "Ripe with certainty" doesn't make much sense (that would just be "certainly ripe" I suppose). The phrase "Ready with..." .. can anyone think of a sentence "Ready with X" ...? –  Joe Blow Jul 11 '11 at 19:24
@Joe: Ripe means something more than ready. And my dictionary offers this usage example: a population ripe with discontent. But in another sense, a fruit could be ripe with seeds implying that it (a) is ripe and (b) it has seeds and (c) the ripeness is somehow related to the seeds. –  MrHen Jul 11 '11 at 19:46
@Joe: when used with with, ripe takes on a whole new level of meaning. Ripe with does not mean ready with. By the way, ready with is a valid phrase in its own right that means keen or quick to give (NOAD). –  Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 19:51
Semantically I don't see a problem with either word. Or grammatically, if it comes to that. My problem is that you almost never find anything else described as "rife" unless it's a bad thing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 0:02

My first thought was that rife with opportunity was gibberish, but it turns out to be at least as common as the ripe version I'm familiar with. I'm a Brit, and NGram seems to imply both forms are predominantly US usage, but the version I know seems commonplace enough to me. Here's the combined US/UK usage chart over the past 50 years from NGram (UK usage is so low it doesn't graph at all if I restrict to just that). .

Calithumpian has unearthed an 'original?' instance in a translation made 1834, but this clearly didn't catch on for a long time. I believe this is because many would feel the same as me that rife sits uneasily with something 'positive'. Both forms seem to have started appearing more frequently in the late 1800s. Initially with a tendency for rife to be used referring to opportunities for crime and other negatives, and ripe to be associated with fields.

By the early 1900s it seems to me there are two distinct expressions doing the rounds, with any given speaker presumably massively preferring the one he's familiar with. Both expressions are somewhat flawed grammatically and/or semantically; it makes little sense to me to suggest that only one is 'valid' or 'original, and that the other is simply 'wrong'.

To me, rife with opportunity is strange - I'm more familiar This dog is rife with fleas. Apparently others feel the same (there's only one instance of ripe with fleas in the whole of Google Books).

I do not feel that usage for either word is significantly affected by what I imagine are a tiny number of speakers who don't know what either/both words mean.

One reason I personally favour ripe is that I associate it with similar expressions such as ripe for [the] taking/plucking (and even plunder, since whenever that's said it's invariably 'positive' from the speakers viewpoint).

TL;DR: Both expressions really do exist, and in my opinion can be said to be 'valid'. Rife sounds odd to me, but obviously not to many others.

EDIT: As I write, this answer has +5/-4 votes, which is probably the most "polarised" answer I've ever seen on ELU. Perhaps that's to do with the UK/US usage split mentioned above ('rife' wasn't common in America until the early 1800s, and almost all earlier British usages are negative).

Strangely, although almost all online references give "negative" example usages for rife, the only one I can easily find that explicitly mentions this negative connotation is Google...

  1. (esp. of something undesirable or harmful) Of common occurrence; widespread.
share|improve this answer
+1 for the negative connotation of rife –  Jimi Oke Jul 11 '11 at 18:02
If you pluralize opportunity in your Ngram, rife comes out on top. –  Callithumpian Jul 11 '11 at 18:47
NGrams is interesting but not authoritative in this context. Also, as Callithumpian pointed out, the data you get out depends on the data you put in. –  MrHen Jul 11 '11 at 19:43
@MrHen: One translation that hardly made it into common parlance for many decades is hardly relevant to identifying the 'correct' version today. My NGram does show that on average, and particularly more recently, ripe is preferred for the singular, which is all I've ever heard. But British usage is below the NGram radar, so I guess I'd better concede that the Yanks will say what they will, in defiance of my negativity towards anything rife. –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '11 at 23:47
+1 for noting that both usages have been around for a long time. –  Kevin Lawrence Jul 12 '11 at 22:14

I am not an English expert but it seems to me "rife" is the correct word to use as it stands for "unchecked" situation.

For example: The new land, rife with opportunities, gave the perfect place to build a new home.

But at the same time the following sentence is also correct,

A situation, ripe with opportunity, is a rare event, and it comes once in a lifetime or not at all.

So I think both can be used, it just depends on how you use it.

share|improve this answer

I think that rife, be default, carries a negative connotation. It seems to describe overabundance, excess, or a lot of bad things. The only time I recall having seen the word used in a positive manner is ironically.

The corpse was rife with disease. The park was rife with noisy children. The resort buffet was rife with delicious seafood. (ironic)


Using "rife with opportunity" to me makes no sense, and ripe is clearly weird, I'd go with "rich with opportunity".

share|improve this answer
We are of like mind on the inappropriateness of rife. But per my comment against OP, the echoes of to ripe for the taking/plucking make ripe perfectly acceptable to my ear. –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '11 at 23:58
In the first example given by Callithumpian we see the phrase "rife with opportunity of sin, deceit and dark example" - presumedly negative influences (in the eye of the author). Rife with opportunity (of something good) is IMO never used. –  James Jul 12 '11 at 17:38
I have made that same point about the 'original' (a translation) in comments elsewhere. But clearly most other answerers here don't have a problem with Rife with opportunities [for desirable things]. –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 18:22
...and I'm still getting hammered by downvotes! –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 18:22

protected by tchrist 11 hours ago

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.