Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Writing Wednesday: Use the Right Word!

I've ranted on this topic before, but it's cropping up again in my reading, both in my day job and my "real" life - writers using words that sound the same as the one they meant to use but give the sentence a different - or no - meaning.

As an example, INSURE / ENSURE / ASSURE crops up a bunch at work, people interchanging the words without understanding they don't mean the same thing. And I've almost given up correcting people on their usage of i.e. as opposed to e.g. - a simple correction for a co-worker I like turned into a back and forth exchange of defensive emails that went on forever.

(for anyone who's curious, i.e. means "in other words" and e.g. means "for example". We use them interchangeably when we shouldn't, and adding "etc." to the end of an i.e. list doesn't fix it.)

I'm not saying I'm always right. My point is that spell check can't fix these problems because they are real words. They just aren't the right words. Editors who rely too heavily on spell check will miss them too, because this isn't just a self-pub phenomenon (although it crops up more frequently in self-published books.) But you can't blame everything on the editor. This is YOUR book.

Ultimately, it's YOUR responsibility to use the right word.

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. 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 at work, I’d be a millionaire!)

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? 

Happy Writing - and Reading - to ALL!


  1. Katie - I simply adore you!!! This post is very timely for me since I am currently in line edits. I, too, suffer from wrong word syndrome. For me, it's always effect/affect and bear/bare. Just yesterday, my editor Track edited an effect/affect mistake for me. I feel like a moron when that happens!!!! This post will help me sniff out those mistakes better, now. Bless you!

  2. Love this post! I have a list of words to check in my manuscript that I use as part of the editing process. And I never, ever use effect/affect correctly!

  3. I may be one of the guilty people who use affect and effect incorrectly. I've decided to make a sigh the post over my desk. Great post. Thanks, Katie.

  4. I love and loathe grammar. I love Grammar Girl for many things, and her book 101 Misused words is a good one (and her website for other grammarly things). As a scientist i.e. and e.g. as well as affect/effect are ground into memory. I still hate lay vs lie and avoid them whenever possible. My editor enlightened me to the use of relish (no in) vs revel in as well as dangling modifiers, and a few other grammarly things. We are always learning and I am sure each author has her own pitfalls. I keep a list. LOL Thanks for this post and reminder! :) I also struggled with adjective orders (#/quality,/age, shape, color, etc.).

  5. The funniest typo I've seen in a while, from a critique partner whose eagle eyes usually catch all typos--writing about a female politician at a press conference, instead of "She expelled a snort," she wrote "She expelled a snot." I about peed myself.

  6. Interesting post! I think my biggest pet peeve is your for you're.

  7. Lovely post. Kind of wish it had a test at the end for us...

  8. I join charlotte in the lie vs Lay problem. I've even rewritten a sentence to avoid using either one. Thanks Katie for the reminder. I've overcome some of your list of words, but still struggle with others. It doesn't help that recently my keyboard refuses to type the first letter of the words I write. Headed to the store for a new one. LOL


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