‘Shelve' or 'Shelf': What's the Difference Between the Two?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 17, 2023

Are you wondering whether to use 'shelve' or 'shelf' in your writing? It's a valid question since they are both very similar words. In this article, you'll learn the difference between the two.

In short, 'shelve' means 'to put on a shelf' or 'set aside,' and a 'shelf' is a flat surface attached to a wall used to store things.

What's the Difference Between 'Shelve' or 'Shelf'?

So what's the difference between these two words, and why do they look so similar? The reason for this is that they originate from the same word. However, they are different parts of speech, so they are not interchangeable.

Read on to learn the meaning of each word and when you should use them.

What Does 'Shelve' Mean?

'Shelve' is a verb that can have one of a few meanings. It can either mean 'to put something on a shelf' or 'to postpone an idea or action.' The latter definition is the most common. More often than not, to say you're putting things on a shelf, you say that: putting things on a shelf. But it's good to note that 'shelve' is the correct term to use grammatically.

It also has a third meaning that is less commonly used as it is pretty niche. When a surface slopes down gradually, it is said to "shelve."

Since 'shelve' is a verb, it can take many different forms. You might see it in its present participle form ("shelving"), its past participle form ("shelved"), or even with an 's' for the third-person singular pronouns ("shelves").

What Does 'Shelf' Mean?

A 'shelf' is a flat surface fixed to a wall or inside a cupboard where you store items. You could place books on a shelf, pots and pans, decorative items... the choice is yours.

It's also the noun form of the third definition of 'shelve': a sloped surface is called a 'shelf.'

The plural form of 'shelf' is "shelves." That's right, like the third-person plural form of the verb. So if you see "shelves" in a sentence, you'll have to decide whether it's the noun or the verb based on the rest of the sentence.

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Shelve'

I'm sure you want to know how to pronounce these two words. Their pronunciation is very similar since it's only the final sound that changes. Let's begin with 'shelve.'

The International Phonetic Alphabet spells it like this:


And it sounds like this:


Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Shelf'

As for the word 'shelf,' the International Phonetic Alphabet spells it like this:


And it sounds like this:


Yes, 'shelf' is one of those rare words pronounced precisely how it's spelled.

When to Use 'Shelve' or 'Shelf'

Let's look at examples of 'shelve' and 'shelf' in real-life scenarios, so you know when to use them.

Example Sentences for 'Shelve'

We'll start with the word 'shelve.' Remember, it's a verb, so I'll show you some example sentences that use the verb in its different forms.

We decided to shelve the project when we realized we weren't going to be able to agree on the best course of action.

The rocky shore shelves gradually into the water.

We've completed the kitchen refurbishment, everything is set up, and all the cookware has been shelved.

What does everyone think of shelving this topic for later when we have more time?

The plans for building more cycling lanes in the city were shelved due to a lack of financial resources.

Example Sentences for 'Shelf'

Now let's look at some examples of the word 'shelf.' I'll use both the singular and plural form of the noun.

Can you reorganize the top shelf on aisle four?

The knives are safer on the shelf, out of reach.

The kitchen shelves are looking a little worse for wear.

The largest Continental shelf is in the Arctic Ocean.

After reading the last page of her book, she placed it back on the shelf and began thinking about her next read.

The Bottom Line for 'Shelve' or 'Shelf'

So there you have it. The bottom line is that 'shelve' is a verb, and 'shelf' is a verb, so which spelling you use will depend on whether you need a noun or a verb for the purposes of your sentence.

Remember to check out our blog for more articles on commonly confused words to continue improving your writing.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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