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

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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16 Replies to “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?

      1. sorry sirs but you “believe” wrong… Half mast/staff does not mean ‘Half’ a Flag Pole… There is no guesswork here but laid out very succinctly in Naval Customs and Tradition…
        Retired Signalman U.S.N. here, with a true “half mast” the flag is raised to the top, hold there, then lowered one width of the flag down, the same position is known as a “Dip” for respecting passing vessels of the line… this saves on ‘guesswork’ on where to fly the flag at half mast or half staff on the pole or mast…. unfortunately this is another lost part of our history and traditions so people tend to start making things up and guessing… as I have seen some real poorly displayed half staff and half masted flags in the U.S. and abroad these days, with flags sloppily lowered so low they are tangled in tree limbs, sloppy halyards with loose lines and flags blowing poorly in the wind, etc… now… for lowering the half masted flag from the position of a true half mast, it’s just a short trip up the mast/pole, hold… then lowered… too bad people don’t know proper protocol when it comes to our flag, but then it was my business for 27 years… and the Signalman Rate was done away with in the new ‘modern’ Navy.. probably because it has the word ‘Man’ in it…
        fair winds and following seas…

        1. We are a school and would like to make sure we are flying the flag(s) properly when school is in session. We are now flying the flags at half-staff (half-mast) as recommended by the president. Is there any true protocol on whether we should fly our state flag during these circumstances? We were under the impression that we should not fly the state flag, but want to make sure we are doing the proper, patriotic thing!

  2. Is a second flag such as state flag or military branch flag supposed to come down when the American Flag is at half mast or half staff, or does it fly at half mast as well under the American Flag?

  3. I believe that the U.S. flag is displayed on a U.S. Navy ship on a “Jack STAFF”, not on a mast. If that is true, then your definition above is wrong. I’m sure that Navy CHINFO can clarify this for you.

    1. Aboard Navy ships and Navy bases, the flagpole is called a mast. I served in the Marine Corps for 12 years and spent time on ship. This is language that has been taught all the way back to Boot Camp.

  4. It is my understanding the half mast on both ship and land till between first and second world war. at that time the reports started calling it half staff out of lack of knowledge. a flag is displayed on a mast. A staff is a stick a shepherded carries.

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