Friday, February 17, 2012

Homophone Hassles: Like Pronunciations, Way Unlike Meanings

Homophone Hassles:
Like Sounds, Way Unlike Meanings

Almost everybody has on a few occasions written a wrong word that sounds like the right word when spoken but has a different spelling and a different meaning. One of my favorite homophone goofs is “with baited breath,” which I see fairly frequently and which always gives me a mental image of a fishing lure or a worm floating in midair in front of someone's mouth—“baited breath,” get it? Well, anyway.
She stood with baited breath. Sorry, but I can't help it . . . that's just funny.
She stood with bated breath. Not funny. Correct usage, but no laughs.

Very few of the manuscripts I've proofread over the last dozen years have had nary a single misused homophone, and it doesn't seem to matter whether the writer was a seasoned author or a relative beginner. Nearly everyone does it. Just yesterday, I read at a professional writers' message board: "I'm hear to learn . . . ." A few days ago I came across this in Denise Dietz' novel Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread: " . . . I had a terrier named Rabbit. His brother--same litter--was named Hare, as in 'hare of the dog.'" It's pretty amazing how many folks write "hare of the dog." It's an extremely common mistake. Now, she probably knew that and did it on purpose as a pun to make the dogs-named-like-rabbits theme of the sentence work, but the expression in that form is still a good example of the wrong word that sounds like the right word. Everybody--almost everybody, anyway--uses the wrong word now and then. Probably including you. Certainly including me.

Homophone mix-ups are irrelevant in speech because they sound exactly alike. When we write, though, we have to take care because two or three or even four words with different meanings and spellings might sound exactly alike to our mental ear and fool us as we write but be seen as the mistakes they are by readers.
Here are a few more examples:
Claude has a flare [flair] for decorating.
Their [There] are two [too] many cooks in this kitchen.
I'm not sure you know what your [you're] doing.
We new [knew] we could depend on him for wise council [counsel].
Its [It's] a long drop from anywhere to here.
Something hurried passed [past].

Now, in case you're thinking that I made these up, that they're too obvious to have actually occurred . . . well, au contraire, mon frere. All of them are not only real mistakes, but real mistakes in professional writers' finalized and published work. There is no shortcut to avoiding problems with sound-alike words. You have to have the information in your head; you have to know. Your word processor's spell checker won't flag homophones.

Does any particular homophone misuse bother you more than another? Does some sound-alike word make you smile, as "baited breath" does to me? Do you personally screw up a particular one?


  1. Wrack and rack. Had to look them up the other day for one of my stories. Still not positive I got it right.

    1. I did recently read that someone was racked with guilt. Double sin! A cliche AND and misused word.

  2. One of the common ones is complement and compliment. Sometimes I wonder if the writer knows the difference.

  3. Speaking of baited breath, we saw this in a small coastal town: Fresh Fish Daley--a great name for a character in an Elmore Leonard novel.

  4. The only one I can think of right now is: whose and who's

    I'm sure I'll think of more as soon as I hit "Send."

  5. I just finished reading a story in the latest EQMM where the girl wears an ornament in her "naval". Not once, but twice.

  6. She might have been into sailors. Maybe?


Comments are always welcome and never moderated. You don't have to be a member or sign up for anything or eat Froot Loops for breakfast to post your observations.