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Homonymphobia

By Carter Nipper
Copyright 2007 by Carter Nipper, All Rights Reserved


My hare is just like hers, accept hers is strait, and mine is curly.  Its effecting hour relationship, two.

Not easy to read, is it?  If you read this passage out loud, it makes perfect sense.  How many mistakes do you see in these two short sentences?  I count eight -- hare (hair), accept (except), strait (straight), Its (It's), effecting (affecting), hour (our), and two (too).  Guess what: Microsoft Word did not find any!  Be afraid -- be very afraid.  Homonyms are everywhere!

Homonyms (also called homophones) are words that sound and/or are spelled alike but have different meanings.  It's the ones that are spelled differently that are the writer's biggest problem, because spell-check does not catch them.  These words are spelled correctly, only misused.

Misused words are really irritating to readers (especially excessively picky ones like me).  If the reader is an agent or an editor, too many of these mistakes will generate the dreaded "Not right for us" response.

Next to overt misspellings and punctuation errors, homonyms are the biggest problem that I notice in a story, article, or novel.  You might be surprised how many wiggle by the copyeditor and survive in the finished product.  I hope this article will raise your awareness, so you can spot these pests in your own work, as well as in others' works that you might be critiquing.

Too many homonyms exist for me to give a complete list (isn't English such a fun language?), but you can find a pretty good one online at http://www.cooper.com/alan/homonym_list.html.  The page is pretty old (last updated in 1997), but still pretty complete -- after all, how fast does a language change?  It's a good page to bookmark for quick reference.  What I will do, though, is to bring a few of the more common offenders to your attention.

Accept, except

Oh boy, does this one ever get people confused!

Accept means to receive, usually with the implication of voluntarily.

Except means a variance from a rule.

I accept gifts from anyone except my ex-wife.

(As a side note: Word's Grammar Checker suggests that I use "accept" in place of "except" in the above example, which is clearly wrong.  This is why I usually leave that feature disabled.)

Ade, aid, aide

An ade is a sweet, fruit drink usually served cold (think lemonade).

Aid means assistance.

An aide is an assistant, like a hospital aide.  High-ranking military officers have aides-de-camp.

Aides give aid by pouring ade for hot and thirsty people.

Affect, effect

This is another real bugaboo.

Affect means to have an influence on.

Effect is the result of the influence.

One effect of war is to affect the lives of civilians.

Air, ere, err, heir

Air is the combination of gasses (and other stuff) that we breathe.

Ere is an archaic word that means until or before.

To err is to make a mistake.  It's only human. (It can also be pronounced differently from the other three.)

Heir is the beneficiary of an inheritance.

Ere the heir errs, let's clear the air.

Altar, alter

An altar is a raised or prominent focus of religious worship.

To alter is to change.

To alter an altar is often sacrilegious.

Bait, bate

To bait is to tease.  Also used to describe the object being used to tease the victim.

To bate is to lessen.  We usually use abate these days.

Don't bait the environmentalists by falsely promising to bate the run-off.

Ball, bawl

Ball means a sphere, usually a toy.

To bawl means to weep or lament, usually loudly.

Children often bawl when they get hit by a ball.

Bare, bear

Bare means naked or uncovered.

Bear means to carry.  It also names a certain wild animal that goes in the woods.

A bare bear is not a pretty sight.

Base, bass

A base is a foundation, something an object rests upon.

Bass is the lowest register of music or the instrument used to make this music. Also, a certain species of fish. The musical term is pronounced the same as "base"; the species of fish rhymes with "mass."

He placed his bass on a wooden base.

(This could work for either the instrument or the fish.)

Board, bored

A board is a plank of wood.  Also a group of people in charge of a corporation.

To be bored is to be disinterested.  Also, the act of having drilled a hole in the plank.

A bored Board of Directors is trouble.

He bored a peephole into the board fence.

Brake, break

A brake is a mechanism for bringing a vehicle to a stop.

A break is a fracture.  Also, to make the fracture.

A break in a brake line is bad news.

Cache, cash

A cache is a discreet hoard.

Cash is money, usually the jingly kind.

A cache of cash is handy.

Cannon, canon

A cannon is a large gun.

A canon is a collection of laws.

Cannons sometimes enforce canons.

Capital, capitol

I always have to look this one up.

Capital means the top or most important of something.  Also, the money to fund a certain operation.  The city that is the seat of a government.

A capitol the building that is the seat of a government.

The columns on the Capitol Building have Corinthian capitals.

Carat, caret, karat, carrot

Carat is a unit of measure for gems.

A caret is used as an insertion mark.  It looks like this: ^.

A karat is unit of measure for the purity of gold.

A carrot is a vegetable.

A 24-carat diamond carrot on a 24-karat gold chain would be awesome.

(Sorry, I can't figure out a way to work "caret" into this example.  Just remember it as "the other one".)

Complement, compliment

Complement is something that enhances or completes something else.  Also used to indicate a group of people, especially a complete group.

A compliment is a statement of praise.

I complimented the way her necklace complemented her dress.

Dam, damn

Dams hold back water.

Damns are curses or condemnations.

Damn that dam!

Discreet, discrete

Discreet means never having to say you're sorry.  It means being careful.

Discrete means being separate or unique from everything else, especially other items of the same kind.

Discreet people are often discrete from the rest of us.

Dual, duel

Dual means paired.

A duel is a fight, often to the death, between two people.

The two offended couples declared a dual duel.

Elicit, illicit

To elicit is to draw forth or solicit.

Illicit means illegal, or at least immoral.

Prostitutes elicit illicit sex where their work is prohibited.

Feat, feet, fete

A feat is a great accomplishment.

Feet grow at the ends of legs.  Also, measurements based on such appendages.

Fetes are celebrations, usually in honor of a particular person or group. "Fete" rhymes with "pet."

The fete celebrated Brad's feat of wining the race by virtue of his fleet feet.

Grate, great

A grate holds firewood or covers a hole.

Great means big or held in much esteem.

A great grate filled the hearth.

Hear, here

To hear is to gather sound waves into one's ears in hopes of making some sense of them

Here is not there.

Note: A common phrase of agreement is "Hear, hear," not "Here, here."

Here you may hear great wisdom.

It's, its

Oh, the pain, pain of it all.

It's is a contraction of "it is."

Its is the possessive form of "it."

It's a shame that its efforts failed.

Lightening, lightning

Lightening is to become or make lighter or paler.

Lightning is an electrical arc between earth and sky or cloud and cloud.

Lightening the sky, the lightning bolt caused a clap of thunder.

Medal, meddle, metal, mettle

A medal is an award.

To meddle is to stick your nose in where it is not appreciated.

Metal is a hard substance with certain specific chemical and atomic properties.

Mettle is a measure of one's worth or hardiness.

Don't meddle with a metal medal that shows a hero's mettle.

Naval, navel

Definite trouble if you confuse these.

Naval means of or pertaining to ships or a navy.

Your navel is more commonly called your belly button.

An admiral's belly button could be called a naval navel.

Ordinance, ordnance

An ordinance is a law or decree.

Ordnance causes loud noise and fires ammunition.

The ordinance banned the discharge of ordnance within city limits.

Pedal, peddle, petal

Pedals allow your feet to propel a bicycle.

To peddle is to sell, either in a shop or by haranguing strangers on the street.

Flowers are made up of petals.

The bicycled shop owner peddled petal-shaped pedals.

Pore, pour

To pore is to peruse with great intensity.  Also, a small hole in a skin or membrane.

To pour is to dispense, usually through a spout.

Don't pore over your pores and forget to pour your coffee.

Pray, prey

To pray is to seek the guidance, blessing or intervention of a higher authority.

Prey is food on the run.

Predators pray for prey.

Principal, principle

Principals are CEOs of schools.  The greater meaning is the best or highest of something.

Principles are moral codes that one lives by.

Honor is a principal principle of the military life.

Rack, wrack

A rack holds things, usually for display.  It can also be a torture instrument.

To wrack is to abuse to the breaking point.

Racks wrack human bodies.

Reck, wreck

To reck is to consider.

A wreck is something broken, usually a machine or a person.

A failure to reck often causes a wreck.

Scene, seen

A scene is a section of a story or a particular view.

Seen means observed.

The scene was seen by millions of movie-goers.

Sight, site

Sight is the sense of vision.  Also something observed using that sense.

A site is a location.

The construction site was a horrible sight.

Stationary, stationery

Stationary means fixed or motionless.

Stationery is paper goods used to communicate in writing.

I wrote on stationery that was stationary on the desk.

Steal, steel

To steal is to sneak or misappropriate.

Steel is a hard, silvery metal.  Also to prepare oneself.

Some of us have to steel ourselves to steal from others.

 

Straight, strait

Straight means continuing in a line without deviance.  Also, in poker, a consecutive series of cards.

A strait is a narrow channel or a difficult time.

Continuing straight through the strait led them into the Indian Ocean.

Than, then

This one bothers me more than most.  That thumping noise is the sound of a book hitting the wall when I see this.

Than is part of a comparative phrase.

Then is an indication of a particular time period that is not now.

Things were different then -- calmer than they are now.

Their, there, they're

Their means belonging to them.

There is anywhere that is not here.

They're is a contraction of "they are."

They're practicing their martial arts over there.

Threw, through

Threw means hurled or tossed, the past tense of "throw."

Through is a preposition indicating a passage of some sort.

He threw the ball through the air.

To, too, two

The bugaboo of so, so many.

To means toward.

Too means also or very.

Two means one plus one.

Getting from one to two is too much for some people.

Troop, troupe

A troop is a group of military men, usually combat soldiers.

A troupe is a group of actors.

The troop formed a theater troupe to amuse their fellow soldiers.

Vary, very

To vary is to change.

Very is an indication of much.

Don't vary very much, or you'll get lost.

Verses, versus

Verses are divisions of poems or songs.

Versus means against. It can be abbreviated vs.

Verses versus stanzas is a pedantic difference.

Vice, vise

Vice is a sin.

A vise is a device to squeeze something or hold it very tightly.

A vice can put you in a moral vise.

Want, wont, won't

These three are all pronounced differently but similarly.

Want is a desire or lack.

Wont means to be inclined to behave a certain way.

Won't is a contraction of "will not."

He won't indulge his wont to want ice cream.

Who's, whose

Who's is a contraction of "who is."

Whose is a possessive form of who.

Whose car is that and who's the driver?

You're, your

You're is a contraction of "you are."

Your means belonging to you.

You're not sure what your words mean at this point.

 

Sew their you have it: a concise and completely lucid explanation of homonyms and there differences.  Go fourth and sen no more.

P.S. The American College Dictionary was indispensable to me in writing this article.  Get a good dictionary, use it.  You and your writing will benefit far beyond the cost.

Books referenced:

Barnhart, C.L. The American College Dictionary. New York: Random House, 1974.  ISBN: 978-0394400013