Light and lite basically have the same meaning in some contexts, but there are certain rules around using the words correctly. Knowing the difference is important, especially when it comes to usage in formal writing.
Light has several meanings related to illumination, e.g., the light of the sun, switch on the lights or light the candle. However, for our purposes here, when comparing to the word lite, we mean light in the sense of being non-heavy. For example, we know that a feather is light. We might also talk about something like a beer or mayonnaise being light, meaning it is low in calories or has reduced levels of alcohol, sugar or fat.
Lite is an informal version of light, used in more casual and marketing-related contexts. It has become more common in the 21 st century, as a synonym for non-complex or containing less of something.
In theory, you should always use light in formal writing and never use lite. However, there is evidence that the word lite is becoming more widely used in major publications for political purposes.
We never use lite to talk illumination, e.g., the light of the moon or the lights in your house etc. Nor do we use lite when talking about things that are literally less heavy than something. We would not use lite in this sentence: “Mark grabbed the _____ box while I took the heavier one,” but rather light.
In addition to suggesting lower calories or fat, lite can be used informally to talk about something that is not as complex or heavy as another thing. This often appears in marketing, such as with the beer Miller Lite. This use of lite suggests that the beer has fewer carbohydrates or less alcohol than a regular Miller beer. Indeed, to highlight the interchangeableness of lite and light in the world of marketing, you should note that Miller Lite’s competitors are Bud Light and Coors Light.
Lite is also used in the sense of something being simpler than another thing, especially in computing. For example, you will see theSamsung Galaxy Tab Lite or the Nintendo DS Lite. Here, lite suggests that there are more complex versions of these computer tablets and consoles.
However, lite is now becoming more commonly used as a descriptive comparison in politics and media as well, almost used as a criticism. So, you might see a statement like this:
“Elizabeth Warren is just Bernie Sanders-lite.”
Basically, that means Elizabeth Warren is quite like Bernie Sanders in terms of her political policies, but perhaps they are not quite as far-reaching or impactful, or maybe she is a “lightweight” when compared to him. Similar use of lite may be applied to a sports team, in the sense that one team might be similar to another in terms of its tactics but not as accomplished or successful.
The word light has many meanings and is generally used as a noun, verb and adjective. In contrast to lite, we use light in all formal writing when something is literally less heavy than another thing. For example, you would say that a feather is lighter than a rock.
Light can also be used as a verb, e.g., the candle lights up the room, and a noun, the light of the fire.
Lite and light have almost the same meaning, but the word lite is evolving and becoming more commonly used due to its prevalence in marketing and computing. In a sense, the meaning of the word lite is changing. Still, lite is like a slang version or abbreviation of light when talking about food products and computing. As lite is the shorter word with simpler spelling and fewer letters, it can be easily remembered as an option for less formal language.