Half-Staff versus Half-Mast: Which is correct?

Ship half mast

Half-staff versus half-mast, did you know there is a difference between the two? Here is what makes the 2 terms different and how to use them properly.

On national holidays of recognition, such at Memorial Day and Patriot Day, flags fly at half-staff between the summit and bottom of a flagpole. Or do they fly at half-mast? Many people use the two terms interchangeably when they see a flag flying below the very top of a flagpole. However, there is a distinguishable difference between the two terms.

Half-mast is the term used to flying a flag midway between the summit and bottom of the flagpole on a ship, with the ‘mast’ in ‘half-mast’ being derived from the ship’s mast. Half-mast is reserved primarily for ships when flags fly halfway during times of distress or mourning.

According to the U.S. Flag Code, half-staff is largely an American English term where it distinguishes the position and manner of display on a flagpole as half-staff, or midway between the summit and bottom. Flying a flag at half-staff is largely associated with land flagpoles, leaving the term ‘half-mast’ to ships. However, half-staff is mainly a United States term – places like Canada and the United Kingdom do not have ‘half-staff’ in their vocabulary and rely solely on using the term ‘half-mast’ when ordering flags to fly lowered.

Quick quiz after the short lesson:

Which of the following flags are flying at half-mast if you are in the United States? And which is flying half-staff?


*Answer: the picture in the middle with the soldier is a flag flying at half-mast, and the top picture of the White House depicts a flag flying half-staff.

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7 thoughts on “Half-Staff versus Half-Mast: Which is correct?

  1. Is Half Mast measured from the top of the pole or from the top of the ornament on top of the pole and is it to the top/middle or base of the Flag?

    Also, what is the meaning of flying Old Glory upside down?

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