Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Writing Wednesday: A Plethora of "Homos"

If you're here because of the provocative blog title and itching for a fight, simmer down. This is a post about WRITING and EDITING, not sexual preferences. I may be a romance writer, but not everything is about sex. (Just most things.) I first wrote about this subject in my "Write Way" column in the Spring 2013 issue of CapeWomenOnline... but with the PLETHORA of mistakes I've found just in the last week in both work and pleasure reading, I'm sharing again. It bears repeating. (Nothing ever "bares" repeating. Just so you know.)


I still have vivid memories from elementary school, where they tried to make learning the intricacies of the English language a “fun” experience, which is most definitely is not. (In fact, they may have given up completely on trying to teach some of these finer points as the mistakes in books and journalism are running rampant.)

Back then, however, there were usually crayons involved. And sometimes math. Like when you draw pictures of “butter” on the left and “fly” on the right with a big plus sign in between them? What does it equal? Butterfly! Ah, the beauty of compound words. Or, the beauty of a stick of butter that suddenly sprouts colorful wings, depending on the student’s sense of humor.

By fourth grade, the teachers tried to explain about homonyms, homophones, and homographs. Also with drawings, trying to show how words that sound alike can mean different things. Sometimes these words are spelled the same way, sometimes they’re spelled differently.

(No wonder English is such a tricky language to learn!)

So what’s the difference between all these homo words? And why should you care, now that you’re out of grammar school? (Hmmm, and why do they call it “grammar” school?)

Keep in mind, the Latin root “Homo” means “Same.” It’s what these terms have in common – they’re talking about words that have something that’s the same. They are confusing terms because they also mean something is different – meanings, spellings, and even pronunciation.

1. Homonyms are words that sound the same, are spelled the same but mean different things.

Think of it as a sort of math equation: Homo = same + nym = word.


Bear arms; but don’t arm a bear.
Spring into action in Spring, my favorite season.

2. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.

Think of it this way: Homo = same + phone = sound


A bear without fur would be bare.
The plumber ducked under the pipe to grab his duct tape.

3. Homographs are different. And tricky, especially for non-native English speakers. These are words that are spelled the same way but are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

Again, with the math equation: Homo = same + graph = write

Say the following examples out loud, and see what I mean. The words look the same on the page, but when you know the meaning, you know they are pronounced differently.


Tear a paper –or- cry tears of joy (the first “ea” is pronounced like “a” the second sounds like “e”)
Lead a parade –or- a ton of lead weight (the first is pronounced “leed” the second “led”)

But it’s not just the “ea” vowels that can be tricky. Sometimes a single vowel can change sound, too… like in “bass.” (Bass guitar, bass fisherman) It’s a homograph. Same spelling, different word entirely.

Cool trivia facts, Ms. Editor. But why do I care?

Well, Dear Reader, you should pay attention because homophone misuse accounts for MOST OF THE COMMON WRITING MISTAKES OUT THERE. Using a word that sounds like the one you’re looking for… but means something else entirely. This all-too-common mistake plagues every type of writing, from novels to text books to student essays to that report you were supposed to have on the boss’s desk ten minutes ago.

(If I had a quarter for every time I’ve seen affect/effect misused, I’d be a millionaire! and don't get me started on insure/ensure! OMG!)

The computer won’t catch these mistakes. Spell check is useless in the case of homophones, homonyms, or homographs. If you’re unclear about which word you mean to use, look it up. And don’t think your editor is mean when she corrects you.

Now share! What mistakes trip you up in your own writing? What mistakes drive you bonkers when you come across them in your reading? 


  1. Great post Katie. There are so many things to watch for. Sometimes it seems I clear up one bad habit only to find another lurking behind it. Currently working on farther (physical distance) vs further (a metaphorical distance) and to, toward, at (I tend to want to overuse toward which is distracting.

  2. Ooh, further and farther is a good one, and totally worth making sure you use the correct choice! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think my biggest pet peeve is your and you're. That one definitely drives me nuts. To and too are often misused. Good thinking post, Katie!

    1. Oh yeah, misuse of your and you're drives me INSANE. Thanks for chiming in!!!

  4. Great post, Katie. Raising my hand on one that always trips me up. Effect/Affect. I can't begin to tell you how many times I refer to my writing manual on these words. I can't seem to incorporate their meaning into my brain.

    1. Mostly I think AFFECT is a verb and EFFECT is a noun.

      Think "cause and Effect".

      Although, those lines are blurred in some instances... because heaven forbid English should have black and white rules...

  5. Hey there, Katie. Great post, forgot all about these even though I majored in English, but that was so very long ago...
    My worst is past and passed. Can never sort these!
    Anni xx

    1. LOL!!

      I wrote almost a whole column once on past and passed - and basically I ended up telling my readers if they weren't sure about which one to use FIND A DIFFERENT WORD TO USE. Cop out? Totally. But as with so much in life, better safe than sorry! Thanks for joining the conversation, Anni!


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