Got Grammar: Homophones

These days, it is not uncommon to hear writers asking for help with grammar. Yes, grammar! That stuff we suffered through in school and most of us loathed. Why, if we all hated it so much, are we asking for it now?

Well, it seems the public schools are no longer as concerned as they were with whether we can do things like recognize parts of speech. I have a son in college who skated through the public school system without ever having to diagram a sentence, which is completely unfair. Those of us who did suffer through it may not be asked to identify dangling participles on a daily basis, so we grow a bit rusty. Anyway, I thought I would address one of the problems I see most often when judging contest entries these days: homophones.

If you ever had to study grammar, you will remember that homophones (which we inaccurately called “homonyms”) are words which sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. There is no good way to find homophones. They occur when you least expect them and sneak up on you as you are writing. I am certain I am not the only one who has found a “their” when I meant “they’re” in my self-editing.

I am a bit of a grammar snob, even though my own grammar is far from perfect. Slips with homophones, in particular, leap off the computer screen and assault my eyeballs. Slips committed by writers are especially egregious. We are held, unfortunately, to higher standards than most.

Here is a short list of common homophones, as defined by me. Feel free to compile your own list:

*affect to change (sounds like) effect result
bridal pertaining to a bride bridle a horse’s headgear
*capital most important capitol center of government
complementary serving to complete complimentary free or favorable
council a group of leaders counsel advisor or to advise
deer Bambi dear beloved
*elicit to draw out illicit unlawful
fazed to draw out phased done in sequential parts
grate a lattice great extremely good
heard listened to herd group of ruminants
*heroin a narcotic heroine female hero
hoard large stash horde a great many people
leach washing action leech sucking parasite
lean to incline lien a claim on property
*lightening removing weight or darkness lightning electricity from the sky
precedence priority precedents earlier occurrences
queue line cue a signal
stationary not moving stationery writing paper
there a location their belonging to them they’re contraction of “they are”
vain worthless vane flat piece moving with the air vein blood vessel
vice bad habit vise bench-mounted clamp
want desire wont accustomed
* denotes a misuse often encountered and particularly unforgivable to moi

There are hundreds more. If you are not familiar with them, a good resource is: Learn them, please, and use them correctly. This will impress contest judges, agents and editors. Even if it doesn’t knock their socks off, it will not turn them off like misusing them will.

Another pet peeve of mine is words people often misuse or misspell, especially on signs or websites for businesses. You’ve seen them: collectable (collectible); fourty (forty); halfs (halves); barbeque (barbecue); feasable (feasible); pavillion (pavilion); ya’ll (y’all – most heinous misspelling to a Southerner). Personally, people annoy me greatly who use “loose” when they mean “lose” or “wreck” when they mean “wreak”. I am more forgiving of the common mistakes; for instance, believing you own a bedroom suit when it is actually a suite, or not knowing carats from karats.

Some proper uses are becoming antiquated or, at least, misused so often we are inured to them. These days, people are more likely to live in a ten-story building than a ten-storey one. I live in a capitol city where the road running straight to the center of our state government is Capital Boulevard. I think this is because English is a complicated language and we who use it are gradually lowering our expectations for its proper usage. The less-popular spellings will no doubt all be listed as “archaic” soon. That is great news for those who are homophone-challenged, but does not help with contest entries and submissions to agents and publishers today.

Until we retire all those alternate spellings, learn your homophones and be aware when you need to double-check your spelling or usage. You will be interested (and, perhaps, appalled) to know that half the words I intentionally misspelled in this article were not caught by my spelling and grammar checker. Neither are homophones!