Is It 'Pray' or 'Prey'?

Same sound, very different meaning
What to Know

In a religious context, to pray is to speak to a god in order to give thanks or to ask for something. Pray can also mean “to make a request in a humble manner.” The verb prey refers to seizing, devouring, or having a harmful effect on something.

There are certain words in English which have similar spellings and have identical meanings (as with gray and grey). Other pairs have similar spellings but meanings that are quite different (as with tray and tray). And still others have similar spellings, different meanings, and it can be rather awkward when one is used in place of the other. Welcome to pray and prey.

lit votive candles

It's a useful distinction.

The Meaning and Use of 'Pray'

Pray most often functions as a verb, with a small variety of definitions. When used as an intransitive verb it may mean “to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving” or “to make a request in a humble manner.” As a transitive verb pray may mean “to entreat or implore” (in this sense it is often used as a function word in introducing a question, request, or plea) or “to get or bring by praying.”

The Meaning and Use of 'Prey'

Prey, on the other hand, is commonly found as both a verb and a noun. As a noun it carries such meanings as “an animal taken by a predator as food,” “one that is helpless or unable to resist attack,” and “the act or habit of preying.” As a verb it means “to seize and devour prey,” “to commit violence or robbery or fraud,” “to have an injurious, destructive, or wasting effect,” or “to make raids for the sake of booty” (prey comes from the Latin praeda, meaning “booty, plunder”).

Given the potentially violent nature of some of the meanings of prey it can look odd when one uses this word mistakenly for the beseeching or religious one; such mistakes are not uncommon, even in edited prose. More often the word prey is substituted for pray as a pun.

Mr. Rockefeller caries his religions into his business affairs,” says one of his biographers. Out in Kansas they understand that Mr. Rockefeller opens every day with the devout expression, “Let us prey.”
The Washington Post, 21 Apr. 1905

The prayer of religious misers six days out of the seven: “Let us prey!”
The Household Journal of Information, Amusement and Domestic Economy, (New York, NY), 5 Jan. 1861

Keeping Them Straight

When referring to the action of asking for something the word you want is pray; if you are taking something by force then you should use prey. And in cases where you need a noun it is almost certain that the word you should choose is prey.