What’s the Difference Between Elicit, Illicit, and Solicit?

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March 16, 2021
This month’s tip is about three words that are often confused, thanks to a pair of homophones and each word ending in the same five letters. The words being dissected today are elicit, illicit, and solicit. All three words can be found in medical writing, so keeping them straight is important! Let’s dig into them.

Elicit and illicit are homophones (words that are spelled differently but pronounced similarly), so there’s no wonder they’re sometimes confused. However, they have completely different meanings and usages. Before getting into the differences, try the example below and see if you know which word is correct:

Performing noninvasive testing may [elicit/illicit] her symptoms and delay her time to obtain appropriate treatment.

Did you select elicit or illicit? Elicit is a verb (an action) that means to bring out or call forth, such as information or a response. It’s commonly used in medical writing, often referring to a response from a patient. Illicit is an adjective (a descriptor) that means unlawful. Its main usage in medical writing is in reference to illegal substances.

So if we revisit the example above, the verb elicit is correct.

Performing noninvasive testing may elicit her symptoms and delay her time to obtain appropriate treatment.

This patient’s symptoms may be brought forth by noninvasive testing.

Here’s an example for illicit:

The patient reports no smoking, drinking, or illicit drug use.

Pro Tip

How can you remember the difference between elicit and illicit? Just remember illicit = illegal.

Now that we have those two figured out, what about the word solicit? This word isn’t another homophone but sounds similar to elicit and illicit. Solicit is another verb, and it means to request something. See how that could be confused with elicit (to bring out/call forth)?

The simplest way to put the difference comes straight from the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style: To solicit a response is to request it. To elicit a response is to get it. AMA also gives a helpful example:

The physician solicits information regarding the patient’s pain and then performs a physical examination to elicit and evaluate actual pain.

Try some examples yourself:

When he wants to play with others, he [elicits/solicits] their attention by pushing them.

Is the boy already getting attention or is he looking for attention? Here, he’s looking for attention by pushing playmates. Solicit is correct.

When he wants to play with others, he solicits their attention by pushing them.

How about this one?

On examination, the abdomen is nondistended, but palpation of the right lower abdomen [elicits/solicits] a weak cry.

Is palpation requesting or bringing forth a weak cry? Bringing forth—elicit is the right word here.

On examination, the abdomen is nondistended, but palpation of the right lower abdomen elicits a weak cry.


Hopefully this month’s “which word should I choose” helped shed some light on these similar-sounding words. Remember, solicit means to request a response, elicit means to get a response, and illicit means illegal. Happy writing!


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