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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Primer (or Reminder!) of Tricky Homonyms to Watch For

Thanks to freelancer Sarah Brooks for this primer on some oft-needed homonyms. You'll find more even trickier ones in the second edition  of The Frugal Editor (e-book only for the time being), and in the free e-booklet offered by Barbara McNichols.  You can also get a free e-book on editing tips and lots of homonyms when you subscribe to my SharingwithWriters newsletter on any page of my Web site, upper right corner.

Ten Tricky Homonyms 

By Sarah Brooks

Homonyms challenge writers to use the proper spelling and context to accurately convey their ideas.  In the English language, homonyms are those words that sound the same when pronounced, but have very different meanings.  In addition to their potential for muddle meanings, homonyms can be confusing to readers striving to understand language rules.

One of the reasons homonyms get in the way is because they are hard to distill into easy-to-follow rules for writers to abide by.  Each use of homonyms requires active reflection, so they can be tricky to integrate without due consideration. And it isn't always the longest, most complex words that cause trouble.  These ten homonyms commonly confuse and frustrate writers:

Ad/Add - It is hard to image confusion surrounding a two-letter word, but ad presents problems for some writers failing to recognize its very specific meaning.  Ad is short for advertisement, which is its only English meaning.  Add; on the other hand, refers to the action of performing addition.  One way for writers to master this relatively easy homonym is to use advertisement in its full form, until usage becomes more routine.

Affect/Effect - Perhaps the most daunting of all homonyms, this pair of words confounds advanced writers, as well as novices. Effect is the strongest of the pair, which should be used when the meaning is 'to cause'. It is also appropriate when expressing 'the result of'.  Affect, on the other hand, is best used when the intended meaning involves 'influence', rather than 'cause'.  Effect is used following certain words too, like 'an', 'the', 'into', and so forth.

Accept/Except - Accept means to receive or approve of, making it the more commonly used of the two words.  Except, on the other hand, is often used like 'but', to acknowledge an exception.

Their/They're/There - This trio of similar words is particularly vexing for those learning English, as the meanings intersect commonly in everyday use.  The contraction, 'they are' is an easy one, because they're means only that.  'Their' is a possessive pronoun, and 'There' is used appropriately when it designates a location.

Peace/Piece - Context helps writers master spelling and usage, so pairs like 'piece' and 'peace' are relatively easy to distinguish from one another. Piece is a portion, while 'peace is a feeling or state of being.

Pallet/Palette/Palate - Infrequently used homonyms can be the most difficult to master, because repetition helps language rules sink in.  Palette, a range of colors, for example, is seldom used outside certain niches, so it can be confusing when it pop-up.  Likewise with 'pallet', which generally refers to a shipping platform.  Even the most commonly used of the three; palate, has a dual meaning.  It refers to the roof of your mouth as well as your ability to recognize a variety of flavors.
Merry/Marry - Christmas salutations have helped distinguish these homonym meanings, but they are both tied to celebrations, so correct usage can be challenging.  Marry is what brides and grooms do at weddings, while 'merry' means cheerful or happy.

Mettle/Metal - Sometimes their definitions make homonyms even more confusing. 'Metal' refers to elements, while 'mettle' identifies a trait that is bold or determined.  Because both definitions conjure images of lasting durability, their meanings intertwine.
Hangar/Hanger - Most of us have 'hangers' in our closets, but few of us have a need for an airplane 'hangar'.

Discrete/Discreet - Commonly, writers intending to express 'cautious' or 'wary', write 'discreet', which actually means distinct or individual.  Whether they are misspelling the word, or have a muddled understanding of its meaning, 'discrete' is the proper usage when conveying a sense of confidentiality.

Managing homonyms comes naturally for some writers, while others struggle to use words correctly.  Practice and consistency are the keys to success, which is in-reach for writers committed to the details.

Author Bio:

This is a guest post by Sarah Brooks from She is a Houston based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to brooks.sarah23 @

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

1 comment:

Jean-Paul Sartre said...

I erred on "mantle/mantel" in my latest book. A Jesuit education isn't foolproof, apparently; however, the digital format (MultiTouch Fiction using iBooks Author) allows me to purge my venial sins...along with some errant punctuation!

Love your site btw. Very informative...

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