Play It By Ear or Year – Which Is The Correct Spelling?

Play it by ear is the correct spelling. “Play it by ear” means to react to situations spontaneously and make decisions based on current circumstances rather than a predetermined plan.

Have you ever tried to make plans with a friend only for him to respond, “I don’t know, we’ll just play by ear”? This is a very popular phrase in casual conversation. However, is it correct to say play it by “ear” or “year”? Many people get this phrase wrong. Read on to learn the correct phrase.

Which Spelling Is Correct: Play It By Ear or Play It By Year?

man playing music without musical sheets

The English language is full of words and expressions, like role call or roll call, that can be easily confused. There are many homophones that sound the exact same but have very different meanings. So, is it play it by ear or year?

  • Play It By EarCommon phrase used to indicate a flexible approach to decision-making. By “playing it by ear,” you are saying that you’re not tied down to particular methods, but will instead take every case on its merits and come up with the best solution in the moment. Someone who plays it by ear is improvising.
  • Play It By YearThis is a common spelling error just like the words bare or bear with me. Many people use this phrase incorrectly when they mean to say “play it by ear”.

Takeaway: “Play it by ear” and “play it by year” may look strikingly similar on paper, but they mean two very different things. “Play it by ear” is a common phrase used when referring to the unsure or spontaneous nature of a plan.

When To Use Play It By Ear

The expression “play it by ear” means to react to and improvisate a situation without any previous plan. It implies that the person has decided spontaneously or unofficially, and may not have discussed their ideas with anyone else. Just like the words incase or in case, writers often confuse the words ear and year!

In this context, it can be used as friendly advice, often when talking about an upcoming event or situation that neither party knows very well.

  • For example, if a friend is planning a road trip and does not know exactly where they are going or how long it will take, someone could suggest: “let’s just play it by ear!”

By saying this, they express an eagerness to look for possibilities and opportunities along the way rather than try to prepare for everything in advance.

The phrase itself originated from musicians who could play a musical instrument by simply listening to the notes. They did not need to read detailed music sheets!

Takeaway: Use this expression to indicate the lack of a structured plan.

What Are The Synonyms For Play It By Ear?

The synonyms for play it by ear are shown in the table below.

Wing itTo do something without preparation; to improvise.
ImproviseTo create or perform spontaneously or without preparation.
Go with the flowTo adapt to circumstances as they occur.
Make it up as you goTo create or decide something as you are doing it.
Ad-libTo perform without preparation; often used in performance arts.
Play by earTo perform music without sheet music; by extension, to improvise.
Take it as it comesTo deal with things as they happen.
Think on one’s feetTo make quick decisions and respond rapidly.
Fly by the seat of one’s pantsTo navigate a situation by instinct rather than plan.
See how it goesTo wait and make decisions based on future events.

Sentence Examples

  1. I am not sure what our plan for dinner is, we’re just going to play it by ear.
  2. Mark always wants to play it by ear, never makes a plan.
  3. I don’t know how I am going to finish this project is, going to play it by year.
  4. I need to make a game plan for tonight, playing it by ear never works.
  5. Steve did not make an itinerary for his vacation, he is just going to play it by ear and see what happens

In our article about how to spell morning, we demonstrated how important spelling rules are. A small spelling difference can completely change a sentence!

When To Use Play It By Year

This phrase is a spelling error, like to long or too long, and should not be used. There are many phrases in the English language that sound similar but are very different.

It is very common to hear people use this phrase in casual conversation to mean they will figure it out as they go. I believe this happens so frequently because they associate the meaning with time. Regardless, “play it by year” is a typo, like within vs with in, and should not be used!

Not Everyone Likes “Play It by Ear”

For certain types of people, the thought of not having any kind of plan or structure can be extremely uncomfortable. Whether this feeling is caused by anxiety or a natural desire for organization, “playing it by ear” simply does not work for certain individuals who need to have a plan and follow certain routines in order to thrive.

For these types of people “playing it by ear” is not so popular. They want concrete plans!

However, there will always be a group of people that love to improvise and figure out life as they go! But remember your spelling rules. Just like you can’t say gooses, you can’t say “play it by year”!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do people say play it by year?

It means you have no game plan. When you “play it by year”, you’re just winging it, and you’ll make decisions as the year goes on without any real strategy. This may work for some people, but it’s generally not a good idea because it means you’ll be reacting to circumstances instead of taking control of your life and moving toward your goals.

Why is it play it by ear not year?

The phrase “play it by ear” comes from being able to play music after hearing it without a music sheet. This is because the melody of a song can change and evolve as you play it, so you need to be able to adapt on the go and make decisions quickly. It’s also said that this phrase comes from when musicians would have to improvise during performances since they often wouldn’t have time to rehearse or plan out their music in advance.

Do ear and year sound the same?

They sound the same, except for the Y sound. Year is said like “yee-er”, while ear is said like “eh-er”.

Who first said play it by ear?

John Playford, in his 1658 book The Dancing Master, wrote the phrase “play it by ear”. The phrase “play it by ear” likely entered into common English usage many years later.

The Bottom Line

Now you know the difference between play it by ear and play it by year. As it turns out, play it by ear is the correct spelling. This actually reminds me of the auntie or aunty spelling rules! Use this phrase in your conversation to indicate that you’re going to figure out things as you go. Although this phrase was inspired by music, you certainly don’t need to play a musical instrument without sheet music to use the expression play it by ear! If you struggle with this spelling rule, consider using tools like wordtune or Grammarly to improve your writing!