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At times, some suggest using 'entire' for something while others prefer 'whole'.

How to decide whether a noun will take 'entire' or 'whole'?

The whole/entire project done is full of error.
The whole/entire town is affected by deadly virus making everyone a zombie!
For the whole/entire season, I ate grapes and nothing else to cleanse my body.

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3 Answers 3

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Generally speaking, "entire" is more formal than "whole", but they are more or less interchangeable. However, there are certain idioms that demand "whole", such as these:

  • "whole new ball game"
  • "go whole hog"
  • "whole nine yards"
  • "whole nother thing"
  • "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"
  • "the whole shebang"
  • "the whole enchilada"

We also tend to prefer "whole" with food words ("whole milk", "whole grains"). Indeed, according to the COCA collocate set for "whole", about a third of the top 100 collocates for "whole" are food related:

10-OUNCE ANISE    CEREALS   FLOUR  KERNEL  OKRA        SNAPPER  
16-OUNCE BAGEL    CLOVE     FOODS  LEGUMES PEPPERCORNS VEGGIES  
28-OUNCE BREADS   CLOVES    FRUITS LOW-FAT PITA        WHEAT  
ALLSPICE BUNCH    CORIANDER GRAIN  MILK    RYE  
ALMONDS  CARDAMOM CUMIN     GRAINS OATS    SKIM  

Whereas, the collocates for "entire" tend to be academic in nature:

APPARATUS     CONSUME      ECOSYSTEMS   GENERATION  PERMEATE   SEQUENCE    VILLAGES
ARSENAL       CONTENTS     EDIFICE      GENOME      PERMEATES  SLAUGHTERED VIRTUALLY
BATTALION     CONTINENT    ENCOMPASS    HEMISPHERE  PLANET     SPAN        WARDROBE
BODY          CONTINENTS   ENCOMPASSED  HERD        POPULACE   SPANNED     WATERSHED
BRIGADE       CORPUS       ENCOMPASSES  LENGTH      POPULATION SPANNING    WIDTH
CAREER        COSMOS       ENCOMPASSING LIFETIME    PROCEEDING SPANS       WIPE
CAREERS       COVERING     ENCYCLOPEDIA OCCUPIES    REGIMENT   SPECTRUM    WIPED
CATALOG       COVERS       ENGULFED     OCCUPY      REGION     SPEND       WIPING
CAVITY        CREW         ENSEMBLE     OEUVRE      REPERTOIRE SPENT       WORLDVIEW
CITIZENRY     DESTABILIZE  ENTERPRISE   OPERATION   RETHINK    THREATENS
CIVILIZATIONS DEVOTE       EPISODE      ORDEAL      REVAMP     THROUGHOUT
CLAN          DEVOTED      EXPANSE      ORGANISM    ROSTER     TORSO
COASTLINE     DEVOTES      FLEET        OVERHAUL    ROTATE     TRACT
COHORT        DEVOTING     FLOCK        PENINSULA   SAMPLE     TRANSCRIPT
CONGREGATION  ECOSYSTEM    GALAXY       PERIMETER   SEMESTER   UNIVERSE

Seems to be common in geography/ecology (ecosystem, peninsula, coastline, population, watershed), biology/medicine (body, generation, genome, organism, torso), astronomy (cosmos, expanse, galaxy, planet, universe), and military/history (arsenal, battalion, brigade, crew, destabilize, fleet, occupy, operation, perimeter, regiment, roster)

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The meaning of the two words is the same. But "whole" is the Germanic word (in German heil, without no part lacking), and "entire" is the Latin word (integer). So the difference is not a semantic one (that is in meaning), but a stilistic one. "whole" is colloquial, "earth-bound" language. At a house wall I read: "We don't want no piece of the cake, we want the whole bakery." "entire" as a Latin word is more elevated or a bit academic style. If the guys who had written that slogan on the house wall had written "the entire bakery" that would have been a stylistic faux pas, because those guys don't use Latin or academic words, they use simple words.

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It seems that there is a little difference between “whole” and “entire”. However, sometimes they may not be interchangeable: “Would you like to eat the whole cake?” sounds fine to me, while “Would you like to eat the entire cake” may not sound “that” correct.

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  • Coat the whole or entire cake with a thin layer of chocolate. Are not they both sound okay?
    – Maulik V
    Jan 28, 2014 at 15:04
  • @MaulikV - Interesting question. If I was giving instructions to my daughter in our kitchen, I would probably say whole. If I was writing a recipe, or writing a script for a cooking show, I would lean toward entire. In some contexts, entire has a more formal "ring" to it.
    – J.R.
    Jan 28, 2014 at 21:11
  • @J.R. Out of curiosity, cannot it be If I were giving and were writing a recipe...
    – Maulik V
    Jan 29, 2014 at 4:53
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    @Maulik V, I’d rather you coated the whole or entire cake with a thick layer of chocolate, but, joking aside, the question you have asked is very difficult. Certainly there are no specific rules on how we can make our choice. If I were supposed to choose which one of the word to use I’d lean to the common sense, depending on the context, rather than memorizing a lot of idioms. However, since the concept can hardly be understood for a non native, some idioms need to be memorized. Jan 29, 2014 at 6:51
  • @MaulikV - Of course it can.
    – J.R.
    Jan 29, 2014 at 18:29

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