Trouble with Homonyms by Arline Chase

I saw a query letter this week with a “pear of scissors”in it. The author, who lives in a land that was once part of the British Empire, speaks English as a second language. I didn’t have to read more than the query, to know the manuscript, if accepted, would be riddled with similar problems and so it was a no-go right from the start.

Now I know you all know the difference between a pear and a pair of scissors, but obviously someone had a problem. In fact EASL people by no means have a corner of this market and I have often confused compliment and complement or farther and further myself, among others. These are two that I always search and double-check in a completed manuscript, knowing my propensity for getting them wrong.

Homonyms, words that sound alike, but that are spelled differently and that have different meanings, can certainly trip any of us up. Worse, spell check will not find them for you, because they spell real words and are not “mistakes” in spelling.

Below is a list of the most often confused homonyms and other words – mistakes that undermine an author’s credibility. Are any of your own particular bugbears on the list?

Alright/all right – alright is a misspelling
Alter (n)/altar (v)
Ascent (n)/assent (v)
Awhile – never use a while
Bazaar (n)/bizarre (adj)
Blonde (n)/blond (adj)
Coarse (adj)/course (n)
Criteria/criterion – criteria is plural of criterion
Discreet (tactful)/discrete (separate)
Emigrate (leave)/immigrate (enter)
Farther (distance)/further
Formally (manner)/formerly (previous)
Imminent (about to happen)/eminent (distinguished)
Naïve (adj)/naivete (n)

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Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association. You can learn more about Arline on her website.

A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on December 8, 2010.[subscribe2]

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18 thoughts on “Trouble with Homonyms by Arline Chase”

  1. Homonyms are the least of my problems, but 'pear of scissors' slipped by me anyway … wasn't until you pointed out the problem that I said, "Oh yeah, what a dunce that author is."

  2. I'm writing a story now with a "discus" (the thing you throw) that I'd spelt "discuss" (talk about) *blushes at publicly admitting such a mistake*

    When I teach English to the locals (I live in Poland) there's a lot of fun to be had with those words you cite/site/sight.

    A few others to add to the list:







  3. Someone recently attempted to impress me in an email by quoting "Seize the day" but instead typed "Cease the day." YIKES. That attempt fell quite short, as I'm sure you can imagine! LOL

  4. I think many of the errors we see in recent books stem from the usage of spell check by copy editors, prof readers and writers alike. There simply is no substitute for actual knowledge and vigilance. No mechanical system will ever be fool proof.

  5. Oh and don't forget, they're/their, we're/where/wear.

    I might have to disagree with alright – the dictionary states that both All right and Alright are perfectly acceptable as long as used consistently.

    1. Which dictionary?? And does it say "variant" in the definition. Variant means it gets a lot of use, but is incorrect.

      A lot of people use alright in dialogue, claiming that's how folks really talk, but most publishers will correct it in narrative regardless. To use the wrong tool (a word for a writer) is like a plumber using a hammer to unstop a sink.

  6. There is one particular pair that is particularly difficult for me but which at the moment I cannot bring to mind. In the process of trying to do so (bring them to mind), I came across the previously-not-known following:

    In everyday contexts these two words (homophone and homonym) are used interchangeably. But there is a difference in meaning between the two.

    The word homophone comes from the Greek homo meaning same and phone meaning sound. Strictly speaking therefore, the word homophone is used to refer to words which sound alike, although they have a different spelling and meaning.

    Here are a few examples:

    mail, male; wear, ware; metal, mettle; etc.

    A homonym, on the other hand, is used to refer to words which have the same spelling and pronunciation but have a different meaning.

    Here are a few examples:

    May (month), may (possibility); can (be able), can (put something in container); bear (the animal), bear (to carry).

      1. The dictionary online covers both, which is rather handy, and makes a point of outlining who uses what. The dictionary that comes on the Kindle is the Oxford American dictionary, but that too makes it clear who uses what. The fact that we each use different spellings doesn't make it wrong, I don't think. If that were the case, I'd have an awful job correcting all the colors and centers, when I edit American authors. 😉

        1. I love the variations. And when you throw Canadian (or Australian?) English into the mix, it's even more fun. No version can claim to be the "right" one, as Cathy says, but I would add: as with the sexes, Vive la différence.

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