Monday, February 4, 2013

Grammar ABCs: S is for Sound-alikes

Sometimes I marvel that anyone can learn English at all! We have so many words that sound alike but are spelled differently or that are spelled the same but have different meanings. I think one could write a whole book in this subject. But I’ll try to hit some of the highlights and the most commonly misused ones.

As an editor, one mistake I come across fairly often is passed/past. Passed is used when a car is going around another. When that car has passed far enough by the second car, it is past. OR My grandparents lived in the past.

Another is farther/further. This is a difficult one. FARther refers to distance. How much farther is it to the beach? FURther refers to additional time, amount or other abstract matters (I don’t want to discuss this any further. OR …to further (advance) a cause.)

Then there is rein/reign. Rein is what you use to control your horse. Reign is what kings do. Try to remember the difference by thinking of “Reign” as a bigger word. A king’s power is bigger than a rider’s.

Sole and soul are pronounced the same, but have far different meanings. Hint to remember: The sole of your shoe has a hole in it. Soul is the spiritual principle of life or the embodiment of a quality.

Weak/Week and Peak/Peek are difficult. Sometimes I even find my fingers typing the opposite of what I mean and I have to stop and think about it. Maybe if you think of being Weak as Ailing (Weak has an A in it.) Peek can mean “to peer” and both have double “E’s”.

Shudder/Shutter: Shutter is to “shut” as in close the shutters on the window. So the tremor that goes through you that some refer as “someone walking across my grave” would be shuddering.

Bear and Bare. I think you just have to memorize this one. Bear is the big furry animal that lives in the woods or it is a verb meaning to carry. Maybe think of a Bear as difficult to bear (carry). Bare is gettin’ nekked.

And then there is there/their/they’re. I’ve suggested to editing clients who have trouble to just print out a list and tape it to their computer.
There—a place
Their—possessive. (Their house, their dog etc.)
They’re—contraction of they are.

Here's a good on-line article with other examples of Commonly Misused Words and Phrases.

Like I said earlier, there are pages of these examples. What are some of your problem words?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing, and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. I remember passed/past by turning the sentence into the present tense. If you can say "The first car passes the second", then you need "passed" for the past tense.

    For farther, I just remember "far = distance".

    Reign has a "g" and so does king.

    I haven't really had issues with remembering the others, except bear/bare, where I just memorised that if you say "I can't bare it", it means you can't show it, but "I can't bear it" means you can't stand it.

  2. As an editor, I often catch writers using the wrong homonym. As a writer, I find myself sometimes doing the same thing in my haste to get a thought on paper. It's an easy mistake to make, even for those of us who know better. (Maybe the writers whose works we edit also know better; maybe they're also in a hurry to get a thought down before it slips away.) Great post, Heidi.

  3. How about bear/bare with me? (This has become my husband's new favorite idiom. He learned it from being put on hold over the telephone.)


    She could no longer bear/bare it. (As in endure.)

  4. P.S. Cheery Gal was my post. I finally figured out how to update my profile properly. Next step: Consolidate accounts!

  5. My co-authoring partner admits that if there is a homonym to be had, he will choose it naturally over the correct word. All that you've mentioned have come across my screen from him, as well as others. e.g. main/mane.

    The bad thing is that lately I have found myself getting homonym sloppy, too. I blame him. :-)

    Thanks for the post and link, Heidi.

  6. A mistake that I see often online is "peak" for "peek." Authors sometimes write, "Here is a sneak peak at my newest novel." I am surprised every time I see it. If one is doing a promo for a book, one should proof the promo material. (smile)

  7. I've said it before and I'll say it again ... written English is a diabolical plot against, um, casual spellers (notice I didn't say 'me' ... you can draw you own conclusions).

  8. Good suggestion for Reign/Rein, Elle. Easier to remember than mine.

    Christopher, I agree! LOL

    Any suggestions for remembering Main/Mane? Other than looking at the street sign and memorizing MaIn...

  9. Most of the time I know which spelling to use, but my fingers work faster than my brain! Hate when that happens, because people then will think I didn't know the difference. (g)

    Morgan Mandel

  10. I'm with Morgan. I tend to type fast and make mistakes, but I catch them on the read-through.

  11. Another set I see confused all the time is site/cite/sight.

    I feel lucky that my brain is fairly well trained on most of these. I think I just read so much as a child and teen that I internalised the specifics. But, as Linda says, it is easy to slip up when you're typing and concentrating more on the characters who are speaking in your head than on your own grammar and spelling.

  12. Like many people here, I really have to sit a spell and think when using "bear" as a verb. I don't like to bare my indecision and can't bear to make mistakes.

  13. Good post. The English language is confusing. I see mistakes all the time on Facebook that make me cringe. I wonder if they just don't know the difference or if they are just in a hurry.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.