Hold the phone! How to avoid embarrassing mistakes with homonyms and homophones

Let’s examine homonyms and homophones! What exactly are those? Well, let me explain by saying as I write this post, making sure to get each word right, I wonder if I will receive a compliment on the content (which would make me feel content) or if people will say this post doesn’t complement the last few posts I’ve written about grammar.

This clears things right up, doesn’t it? Why, English language, why must you be so confusing?

Homonyms are words that sound alike and are spelled the same but have different meanings. Homophones (a type of homonym) are words that also sound alike but are not spelled the same and have different meanings.

Let’s start with homonyms. I will now address homonyms from where I am sitting, at my current address. Before writing this, I rose from my desk to get a vase in which I placed a single rose. Earlier today, I watched a baseball game. My favorite team just signed a new pitcher, and he took to the mound for the first time as I was pouring a drink from my pitcher of lemonade.

While homonyms can be fun and interesting, they don’t usually lead to writing mistakes. But that’s not the case with homophones, which can cause serious confusion and embarrassing mistakes.

I must confess that I love it when I catch a good homophone mix-up. When I read something like, “Her shoes complimented her outfit,” I know the writer means her shoes completed or made her outfit look perfect (complemented!). But what I picture is her shoes saying, “Hey, outfit, you’re looking really good!” in that sassy way shoes say things. Here are some common homophone mix-ups I see (and fix) in documents I edit.

Please note that some of the words I define below have additional meanings that I don’t cover here because that would make for a very, very long post. I’m using the meanings that I see mixed up most commonly.

Remember, this is not a grammar intervention; I am here only because you need to hear this.

Use principal when you mean the head of a school or the main point; use principle when referring to a rule, as in, “Your principal is going to give you detention if you continue to disregard the school’s principles. Remember, it’s your parents’ principal wish that you don’t get kicked out of school.”

Use brake when referring to what stops your car and use break when…you stop your car too suddenly, causing the new dish you just bought to drop to the floor and break, which in turn causes you to need a moment, or a break, because you are sad about your broken dish.

Use stationary with an “a” when you’re talking about something that is unmoving, and stationery with an “e” when you mean paper, envelopes, etc., as in, “As she rode her stationary bike, she penned a letter to her boyfriend on her favorite stationery. (Fun tip: When you mean paper, think of envelope, which starts with “e” and use “stationery” with an “e”)

Use discreet when you mean to be prudent, silent, or tactful; use discrete when you mean separate or detached. “As a top aide, she needed to be discreet about things she saw at the office. She kept her work life and home life discrete.

Use rein when talking about restraining someone or something; use reign when you mean to rule or have power, as in “We need to rein in his political aspirations now or he will soon reign!”

Use hanger when referring to what you hang your clothes on in a closet; use hangar when referring to a building where airplanes are housed. “The pilot hung his shirt on a hanger after leaving his plane in the hangar.”

Use then when you mean something that is happening next and than when you are comparing one thing to another, as in, “Then we went to a diner, which has better burgers than the club.”

Please don’t write “piece of mind” because a mind is not something you should be separating or taking pieces of! It’s peace of mind, meaning you are relaxed and no longer worried about whatever it was you were worried about. You are peaceful. And so is your mind. Your whole mind, not just a piece of it.

Use peek when you’re stealing a glance; use peak when you mean the top of something. “Don’t peek until we get to the peak of the mountain.”

Too is most commonly used in place of also. It shouldn’t be used as an exaggerated way to say you want to do something, as in “I want too.” That means you want also, which doesn’t make sense. I assume “to” and “two” don’t need any explanation. Suffice it to say, “I, too, want to eat two pieces of pie.”

Although I mentioned this earlier, it’s worth saying again. Use compliment when you want to say something nice about someone or something; use complement when you mean something that perfects or completes something else. It was a compliment to hear that my wall color complements my furniture.” (Fun tip: When you want to give someone a compliment, think of saying something nice. The “i” in nice means you should use an “i” in compliment)

Use pore when you mean looking at something closely; pour when making a drink, and poor when your wallet is empty. “I pored over the book as I poured more whiskey. Cheap whiskey, of course, because I’m poor.”

Use they’re when you mean they are, their to show possession, and there for a specific place. They’re going on vacation to their beach house and will send some photographs when they get there.

Use you’re when you mean you are and your when you want to show possession. “You’re almost done reading this silly blog and your brain is probably tired now.

Well, this was fun! Next time we’ll explore common phrases that people often spell or say incorrectly.

Author: Sue McGrath, editor and proofreader at Bullseye Communications.