GrammarPhile Blog

When Homophones Come Calling

Posted by Terri Porter   Apr 30, 2015 4:30:00 AM

In case you were wondering whether to have that all-important job proofed …

blackberry_ad.jpgAnd this from a smartphone company. BlackBerry’s ad, which appeared on Variety’s home page on Monday, according to Business Insider (and has since been removed), highlights just how easy it is for homophone mix-ups to slip by even in a small amount of text. Same goes for homonyms and homographs.

What’s the difference?

  • Homophones are words that sound exactly like other words but have different meanings or spellings (e.g., won/one).
  • Homonyms also sound like other words and are spelled the same, but the words have different meanings (e.g., slope bank/money bank/bank shot).
  • Homographs have the same spelling but differ in meaning or pronunciation (e.g., bass fishing/bass guitar).

Despite the distinctions, these variations are often collectively called homonyms, and that’s what we’ll use here. We’re less interested in debating the semantics of the terms and more concerned with rooting out these tricky fellows in our clients’ documents — and in helping you do the same in your own writing.

The trouble is … they’re everywhere. There’s one now … er, two (they’re/there). Beyond the popular examples of there/they’re/their, your/you’re, to/two/too and it’s/its, we at often come across more subtle homonyms that have made it through multiple drafts on the clients’ end before being flagged by one of our editors in what we’ve been told is the final version. When clients ask us to look for glaring errors only, homonyms are one of those things they count on us to catch.

Why are homonyms so tricky? Because they elude spell-checkers, which many people rely on to do their proofing for them. Also, when reading aloud (a key strategy for proofing/editing your own writing, which we’ll talk about in a future post), homonyms sound right.

Here’s a short list of some of the most challenging, along with examples of incorrect words that made it into print, which just goes to show they really are everywhere:

ad/add — “He even placed a personal add for Becky” (self-published book)

axel/axle — “As we turned the corner … a gasoline truck’s axel had broke” (self-published book)

bait/bate — “With baited breath, meaning someone is worried or anxious to hear some news” (self-published book on understanding English!)

born/borne — “We know our hosts in Okinawa have born a heavy burden” (CNN transcript)

cite/site — “Can you site any sources to back up what your saying?” (Facebook post … don’t get me started)

compliment/complement — “A fresh salad that compliments the entrée” (catering website)

elicit/illicit — “If a higher temperature is needed to illicit a response” (dental surgery textbook)

eminent/imminent — “If you think a decision is eminent” (college career center website)

forgo/forego — “We’ll have to forego the festivities” (this is everywhere, our clients’ documents included)

forth/fourth — “I was forth in line” (self-published book, for which there seems to be a real market for proofreading services …)

led/lead — “He lead all the way” (numerous sports websites and a very common error in’s clients’ documents)

loath/loathe — “Being loathe to admit that we don’t know an answer” (American Bar Association publication)

mantel/mantle — “Traditional Electric Fireplace Mantle with 23-Inch Firebox” ( product description)

pedal/peddle — “People are encouraged to hop on their bikes and peddle to work” (major news affiliate online story)

pore over/pour over — “Together, we can pour over the details of your individual plan” (family dentistry website)

premier/premiere — “The [name of hotel] invites you to discover the local area while enjoying premiere accommodations” (hotel website)

rack/wrack — “He wracked his brain to figure out what might have caused [the amnesia]” (professionally published book by prominent scientific publication author)

rein/reign — Often erroneously written as “free reign”

waver/waiver — This one commonly crops up in legal documents

Feel free to share with us in the comments other homonym missteps you’ve encountered in print. The folks at BlackBerry will be happy to know they’re not alone.


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Topics: homonyms, homophone, homographs

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