Watt Due Ewe Mien?

Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left hymn and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of bored fence nine feat heigh. Life to hymn seamed hollow, and existence butt a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and past it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-bocks discouraged. Gym kame skipping out at the gait with a tin pale, and singing Buffalo Gals. Bringing water from the town pump had always bin hateful work in Tom’s ayes, before, butt now it did knot strike hymn sew. He remembered that their was company at the pump. White, mulatto, and negro buoys and girls we’re always their weighting they’re terns, wresting, trading playthings, quarrelling, fighting, skylarking. And he remembered that although the pump was only a hundred and fifty yards off, Gym never got back with a bucket of water under an our – and even then somebody generally had to go after hymn. Tom said:

“Se, Gym, aisle fetch the water if yule whitewash sum.”

Maybe you’ll feel differently, but I think what I’ve done above is taken a snippet from the most well known scene of Tom Sawyer, one of the most beloved classics of American Literature, and made it at points unreadable and not something I’d care to continue trying to read.

I confess, when I started this post I thought those words I changed above were called homonyms and some people on the internet who have extensive lists of them believe the same. But as my nine year-old granddaughter explained to me, “No grandpa, those are homophones. Homonyms are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings.” She meant different words like bank and bank, the place where you put your money and that pile of snow out front, or fine and fine, how the Beatles feel and what I paid after getting that speeding ticket.

In contrast, homophones are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently, as in my Tom Sawyer excerpt above. (Wikipedia cuts me more slack than my granddaughter, saying that in non-technical contexts homonym can be used to refer to several kinds of word pairs, including homophones.) Whatever you call it, when I run into the wrong word, even if it sounds the same, my eyes come to a screeching halt and I wonder, “did that character really waive her hands?”

A couple months ago I had a post called Why Proofreading Matters where I talked about why errors in your text matter to the reader. Although I referred to proofreading, the eradication of typos, I was also thinking of correcting homophone errors and other such issues which, strictly speaking, fall in the copyediting or line editing function (what each means seems to be different, depending on who is explaining). Of the errors that manage to sneak through the various quality processes, homonym – oops – make that homophone errors, are the most common I see. Some are the common ones we’re all aware of, but sometimes still get wrong, like their, there, and they’re. Other times I’m amazed to discover yet another word pair I’d never thought of as problematic.

I’m almost out of words, so I guess it’s past time (passed time? Pastime?) to get to the point. When you’re self-editing, make a point of looking for those homophones you know you’re prone to getting wrong (sale and sell always get me). Keep a list of those words, search your manuscript for them, and make sure you got them right. If you’re a banker or attorney, be sure to include waived/waved on your list unless you’re a fan of handless characters.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

31 thoughts on “Watt Due Ewe Mien?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I ran into the same problem with Occupation. Two editors and three beta readers later, still had sight/site overlooked.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Trying to shake these kind of errors (really the whole editing/proofing process in general) out of a blog post is tough. I really feel for authors trying to get it done in a novel. But if Indies want to run with the big boys, they need to deliver the quality of the big boys. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. That word pair is a difficult one for many people. In fact, I just emailed your link to someone who was telling me they have a tough time with it a couple days ago.

      1. Great, glad I could help out. The Editing for Indies group on facebook, by the way, is for anyone who wants or needs help with editing. It is strictly a no spam group, so any posts selling books will be deleted by the 6 site admins 🙂 We need more active members who are looking for help. I have posted this to the group, Al. Thank you.

    1. Editors almost always miss something, Karla. At least that’s my opinion. It is a rare book I see, no matter how published, that doesn’t have two or three problems I spot while reading it. However, there are few traditionally published books where I spot more than a handful and a lot of indies manage to do just as well.

  2. Thanks for this, Al. This is one of the major reasons why I don’t trust spellcheck/grammar check — it won’t catch these types of errors. You can automate spellcheck to a degree, but there’s just no substitute for a good, thorough editing job.

    1. Lynne, I view spell/grammar checking as the first pass that helps me shake out the most obvious and issues, but you’re right, they’re just a start. I know a lot of people suggest using the text to voice function on the Kindle for a pass while self-editing and think that’s a great idea, but these issues won’t ever get caught doing that. I think to shake most of the errors out almost has to involve lots of passes and different approaches in each pass.

  3. Great post today,BigAl, and yet another reason to be proud of The Princess.:D

    Thank you, Ms. Hopkins-Walton for your link. Affect/effect are my worst offenders.

    1. Yup, Linda. I’m always proud of the Princess. It looks like you realized I was talking about you in my response to Jacqueline. 🙂

      1. I suspected that was directed at me, but then I reminded myself that you know a lot people and that the world really doesn’t revolve around me. I found that rather shocking to believe though and poured myself a glass of wine.

  4. Great post, just in case we`re ever lured into thinking that the odd typo won`t matter. It`s disrespectful to readers and, as Al taught me very recently, there is always room for one final, post-editor, post-proofreader, proofread.

    1. Shhh, Carolyn. You could pretend that never happened. Thanks for the comment. As many (maybe most) people know, this area (shaking errors out of books) are one of my pet peeves. I don’t think perfection is obtainable 100% of the time, but if an author doesn’t aim for perfect they’ll fall way short of it and I’m a firm believer that an author can’t edit their work entirely on their own.

  5. Yes! I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read with this problem. Where are the proofreaders and editors? Just as an example: “Grisly” is a horrid bloody scene. “Grizzly” is the type of bear that might have caused it. Thank you.

  6. Made me chuckle. It took reading that excerpt to realize just how much those mistakes make me cringe. Thanks for the little bit of education today!

    1. Thanks, Ben. They often make me cringe. Sometimes they make me laugh, like “waiving hands” because of the comedic potential in picturing what they actually said. I’m often also amused when I see a homophone error I’ve never seen before The latest was using feint instead of faint. This particular book did it multiple times, so I guess credit is deserved for consistency.

          1. If that was the only such error I’d found, I might think your theory had potential, Ben. 🙂

            I can’t even begin to count the number of comments I’ve made that I’ve wanted to edit and had no way of doing so. I’m just happy I can edit my responses on facebook now.

    1. I discovered several new homo-xxx words while researching this, Yvonne. Homographs are the other one that sticks in my mind.

  7. Very nice post, Al, thanks. Good English, I think, proves the adage that nobody’s perfect. In a 100k word novel, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work to make it character perfect. We can only try our best.

    1. Thanks, Chris. English is a rich, ever evolving, and often infuriating language, isn’t it? It frustrates me at times and I’m monolingual (if that’s a real word). I imagine those who speak multiple languages have more difficulty getting it right because of conflicting grammar and usage rules between languages, even if English is their primary language.

  8. lol – that excerpt was fun, and very apt. English is the richest language on earth because of that huge vocabulary, but it does make life harder for writers, and readers. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, acflory. It was fun to do the excerpt. What I called “reverse editing,” by putting all those errors in Twain’s words. I was surprised to find that although being fun it wasn’t that much easier than taking the errors out. 🙂

Comments are closed.