Possum vs Opossum | What’s the Difference?

Commonly Confused Words updated on  January 22, 2024 3 min read

Although “possum” and “opossum” are often used interchangeably, they’re actually two distinct animals.

Possums are marsupials that are native to Australia and the nearby islands of New Guinea and Sulawesi. On the other hand, opossums—which are also marsupials—can be found throughout the Americas.

Possums and opossums differ in several ways, in addition to their geographic distribution.

Possums

Opossums

Belong to the order diprotodontia

Belong to the order didelphimorphia

Can weigh from half an ounce to twenty pounds (varies by species)

Can weigh from two to fourteen pounds (varies by species)

Often have bushy tails, but this varies

Have bare tails

Rounded features

Pointed features with coarse hair

How to spell and pronounce opossum

The animal found in the Americas—the one that you may come across rummaging through your garbage at night—is typically spelled with an “o” at the start, especially in scientific contexts.

The word “opossum” was derived from a Powhatan word (the language spoken by the Virginia Algonquian tribe), meaning “white dog” or “dog-like beast.”

There are two recognized pronunciations for “opossum.” In scientific and academic contexts, the pronunciation “uh-paw-sum” is preferred. In casual conversation, the word can be pronounced like “possum” (which sounds like “paw-sum”). The initial syllable can be voiced or silent, as both pronunciations are recognized and understood.

Examples: Opossum in a sentence
I rescued an injured opossum and took it to an animal rehabilitation center.
Opossums have a bad reputation, but they’re actually very clean and vital animals.
Last night, I saw a family of opossums in our backyard.

How to spell and pronounce possum

The word “possum” refers to the marsupial that is native to Australia and the nearby islands. The correct spelling when referring to this animal is always with a “p” at the start, not an “o.”

However, this spelling (“possum”) is also acceptable when referring to the animal that is commonly found in the Americas, especially when used in casual contexts.

In both cases, “possum” is pronounced “paw-sum.” The two animals have such similar names because possums were named that way due to their resemblance to opossums.

Examples: Possum in a sentence
There are many types of marsupials—possums are just one of them.
While in Australia, everyone wanted to see a koala, but I wanted to see a possum.
I learned that there are many species of possums.

“Possum” is sometimes incorrectly spelled as “possom.”

Example: How to spell possum
I think I saw a possom climbing around in a tree.
I think I saw a possum climbing around in a tree.

What does playing possum mean?

“Play possum” is an idiom that means “pretend to be dead or asleep to deceive someone.” For example, you may play possum if you’re trying to get out of doing your chores.

This idiom came to be because opossums, particularly the Virginian opossums, display a behavior in which they pretend to be dead as a form of self-defense.

When using this idiom, make sure to use the word (and pronunciation) “possum” and not “opossum” (with a voiced first syllable).

Examples: Play possum in a sentence
My little sister didn’t want to leave the party, so she played opossum.
My little sister didn’t want to leave the party, so she played possum.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


US vs UK

Parts of speech

Other

Offence vs offense

Participial phrase

At your earliest convenience

Humor or humour

Superlative adjective

Yours truly

Realise or realize

Comparative adjective

Sincerely yours

Learnt or learned

Nouns

Class act

Cancelled or canceled

Pronouns

Devil’s advocate


Frequently asked questions about possum vs opossum

Are a possum and opossum the same?

No, possums and opossums are distinct animals. Possums are found in Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi; opossums are found throughout the Americas.

Is the “o” in “opossum” silent?

The “o” in “opossum” can be voiced or silent, meaning it can be pronounced “uh-paw-sum” or “paw-sum.” However, the former pronunciation is preferred in scientific and academic settings.



Tags

Gina Rancano

Gina holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, as well as a certificate in professional and public writing from Florida International University. When she’s not writing, she spends her time reading.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.