Friday, May 11, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Avoiding Homonym Headaches

During my years of editing, I have found homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings) to be problematic for many writers. It’s not always that the writer doesn’t know the right word, but rather that—in the heat of getting the story down before something crucial is forgotten or the roll falls victim to daily distractions—we type the first spelling that comes to mind . . . or that flows automatically off the tips of our fingers without conscious thought. These little errors are big red flags to our readers, so we need to do a thorough self-edit of our manuscripts and then use readers and a competent editor to watch our literary backsides.

Below is a list of frequently misused words that often show up in manuscripts, but it is by no means complete.

• Carat (weight), Caret (punctuation mark), Carrot (vegetable)
• Cent (money), Sent (caused to go), Scent (odor)
• Cite (to summon, to quote, to refer to), Site (place, situation), Sight (view)
• Council (administrative or advisory group), Counsel (to advise, advice)
• Depravation (corruption), Deprivation (loss)
• Descent (downward flow or fall), Dissent (disagreement, to disagree)
• Desert (waterless region, to abandon), Dessert (last course of a meal)
• Dew (moisture), Do (perform), Due (owed)
• Dual (two), Duel (combat)
• Flew (past tense of fly), Flue (chimney), Flu (influenza)
• Gait (manner of walking), Gate (door)
• Grate (iron frame), Great (large, magnificent)
• Grisly (frightful), Grizzly (bear)
• Haul (pull, carry, transport), Hall (passageway, large room)
• Heal (cure), Heel (scoundrel, part of foot or shoe, end of bread loaf)
• Herd (a drove), Heard (did hear)
• Here (in this place), Hear (to perceive sound, to sit in judgment)
• Idol (image, object of adoration), Idle (not busy), Idyl (poem)
• Leak (hole, to drain out of), Leek (vegetable)
• Lesson (learning task), Lessen (to diminish)
• Lie (falsehood), Lye (caustic substance)
• Made (created), Maid (domestic servant, unmarried woman)
• Meat (animal flesh food), Meet (a gathering, to encounter, to convene)
• Miner (mine worker), Minor (underage person, of lesser importance)
• Morning (before noon), Mourning (grieving, to grieve)
• Naval (nautical), Navel (center, where umbilical cord attached)
• Oar (rowing blade), O’er (over), Or (conjunction), Ore (mineral)
• Pair (a couple), Pare (to peel), Pear (fruit)
• Palate (roof of mouth), Pallet (storage platform, bed), Palette (art tool)
• Paws (animal feet), Pause (hesitation)
• Peace (quiet, not war), Piece (a part)
• Principal (chief, amount of debt minus interest), Principle (fundamental truth, rule of conduct
• Profit (gain, to benefit from), Prophet (foreteller)
• Rain (water falling from clouds), Reign (rule), Rein (bridle)
• Raise (to lift), Rays (tiny amounts, beams of light), Raze (to demolish)
• Rap (strike, chant words to song), Wrap (enfold, conceal)
• Reek (to emit a smell—often foul), Wreak (to inflict)
• Retch (to vomit), Wretch (miserable person)
• Road (street, way), Rode (did ride), Rowed (did row)
• Scene (a view, story element), Seen (looked at, viewed)
• Sealing (fastening), Ceiling (top of room)
• Sew (to stitch), So (in this manner), Sow (to scatter seed)
• Shoot (to discharge gun or arrow), Chute (inclined trough or tunnel; parachute)
• Soar (to rise high), Sore (painful)
• Some (a part), Sum (total)
• Stair (steps), Stare (to gaze intently)
• Stationary (motionless; in one place), Stationery (writing paper)
• Succor (aid), Sucker (candy, fish, fool)
• Tale (story), Tail (flexible appendage, rear section of airplane)
• Taught (instructed), Taut (tight)
• Their (possessive pronoun), There (in that place), They’re (they are)
• Threw (did throw), Through (from end to end, by way of)
• Too (excess, also), To (preposition, toward), Two (couple)
• Vice (sin), Vise (a press)
• Waist (part of body), Waste (trash, to destroy)
• Weather (climatic conditions), Whether (if it be the case)
• Wood (substance of trees), Would (was willing)
• Yolk (yellow part of egg), Yoke (collar)

What homonyms have you found to be a problem?


Retired editor Linda Lane heads a mentoring team that trains authors to writer better and more effectively. Visit her at

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  1. That's great. Thank you for sharing.
    The ones that make the most problems for me are:
    Straighten (to make or become straight or straighter), Straiten (to make narrow)
    Thought (the act or process of thinking), Though (however, despite), Through (in one side and out the opposite ), Trough (a long, narrow, generally shallow )

  2. Peek (look), Peak (top of mountain), pique (anger). Pique isn't the problem, it's the other two. A friend finally told me that peAk has a mountain in the middle of the word, and that solved it!

    This is a great reference, Linda. Thanks!

  3. For a dyslexic, homonyms are a particularly cruel English joke.

  4. Add me to the peak/peek/pique club, although it's seeing them misused that bugs me.

    Also bait/bate

    And I recently realized that discrete and discreet are two different words.


    (I've seen the above two swapped out in published works as well)

  5. Ela, you have also touched on one of the idiosyncrasies of the English language -- its inconsistency. Consider the "ough" letter combination, which you brought up:
    No wonder we writers have such a time with our language.

  6. Kathryn and Terry, we all struggle with these . . . and sometimes type the wrong one despite our knowing better. Thank goodness for editors and proofreaders! But sometimes even they miss these errors.

  7. Yes, Christopher, they're a real nightmare for dyslexics.

  8. Great reference, Linda. For people who rely on spell-check, these mistakes won't be caught since they are all legitimate words and not just a misspelling. I'm reading a book now that has some problems and right away I realized the author relied on spell-check.

  9. In the heat of typing/writing, I make many of the same mistakes with homonyms. Just madly typing, I don't worry about them. But on editing, I'm very aware of where my usual mistakes pop up. Great list!

  10. Yes, Maryann, spell-check does have its shortcomings. Isn't it nice to know that human editing cannot be totally dispensed with? (Otherwise, we'd be out of work!)

  11. Karen, I, too, type away and proof later to find that my fingers and my mind were not on the same page — or on the same word.

    Gayle, it seems the "peaks" get a lot of us, even when we know better.

  12. Oh, yes, I found a few here that I struggle with occasionally. A frequent one is "dessert" and "desert"--I sometimes have a desert in the dessert instead of a dessert in the desert. And there are others. Good list, thanks!

  13. I wonder if we should add these lists to a special tab on the blog?

  14. Thanks Linda, for the starter list of homophones. (Yeah, we learned it as homonyms, but nowadays they are more often called homophones.)

    The reason these errors are so common is that speech is at least hundreds of thousands of years old, while writing is at best ten thousand or so. Our brains are wired to deal with language as sound, not as arbitrary graphic representation. Once these errors were regarded as serious mistakes evidencing illiteracy. Now they are considered simply the second most common typo (after transposition errors).

    The real kicker is that homophone substitution is SO hard to spot in proofreading, because our brains can "hear" the right word even if they see the wrong one.


  15. Ooops, meant to share a link of over 400 homophones in English:

  16. Glad you found the list useful, Christa. Note the link to the more extensive listing in Larry Constantine's second post below.

  17. Dani, I think the idea of posting lists is great. Not only would they benefit our readers, but also us.

  18. Larry, you nailed the issue squarely on the head. Thank you for sharing the link to a more complete list of homophones.

  19. I had a writer tell me I had no right to call myself a writer because I used "wander" instead of "wonder."

    Actually, I never realized it was two different words.

    I figured it was like "grey" and "gray." After all, both are the same thing, only one is a physical action, and the the other is mental and emotional.

  20. This was great, thanks. This issue of homonyms has popped up all over my fiction lately.

    I linked to this article in my latest entry of Vocabulary Gone Bad at my site.
    as VGB Visited Homonyms this month.

    See "Win A Celery Stalks at Midnight Can A Balled Bare Bee Far Behind?"



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