If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get your proofreaders and editor on your case with a vengeance, it’s falling prey to homophone confusion.
Homophones are words that sound alike when you’re speaking out loud but have different spellings and completely different definitions.
It might seem, to some, like a small thing – but using the wrong homophone can change the meaning of your sentence entirely (sometimes to unintentionally hilarious effect), and leaves a bad impression with those who have otherwise enjoyed reading your work.
Because of this, it’s essential to make sure you’re choosing the right word – and that you make a ‘homophone sweep’ one of your sequential editing stages. (See our article here for some more advice on turning your editing into a structured process instead of an exasperating free-for-all.)
Today, let’s take a look at six homophones that writers most commonly get confused.
Use the noun bear when referring to the large, hairy mammal. The verb bear can also show the act of supporting or holding, and finally for directions (bearing):
- Where did that brown bear sneak off to?
- The truck can hardly bear the weight of the load.
- She bore the punishment with dignity.
- Bear right at the cross roads and continue for one mile.
Use bare as an adjective to show a lack of cover, and as a basic state or situation:
- He was bare from the waist upwards.
- The leaves have fallen, and the trees are all bare.
- They only give the bare minimum of effort.
You’ll most often see this particular confusion creeping up when someone attempts to use the phrase bear in mind. The meaning of this term is to remember something – to hold it in mind – and therefore bear is the correct homophone to use.
The same goes for bear with me – a request that someone hold on for a short time. Confusing this one with bare with me could have unintended consequences!
This is a tricky one. Granted, the words affect and effect aren’t exactly homophones (the pronunciation differs slightly), but even well-educated adults can get confused over which of these words to select.
Some of the confusion comes from that fact that both words can be either a noun or a verb. However, in modern usage affect is nearly always a verb, and effect is used as a noun.
Affect is a verb to show something has made a change. That includes emotions and inside the body:
- The dampness began to affect my health.
- She was affected by the tragedy.
Effect as a noun means a change as a result of an action. Also as a description of lighting, sound, and scenery used in a play or film, and finally as someone’s personal belongings:
- The new medicine had negative side effects.
- This play has amazing sound effects.
- Your insurance will cover all your personal effects.
Effect can also be used as a verb, but this is an uncommon usage today:
- The president effected many policy changes.
In most cases, the confusion arises when trying to explain how something changed something else. The easiest way to remember the difference is that one thing may affect another, and what happens as a result is the effect it has had.
Capital has several meanings. As a noun it can refer to a city with a seat of government, or valuable assets:
- Brian visited Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
- The return rates on invested capital are very high.
As an adjective, capital is an uppercase letter, and an offense that links to the death penalty:
- The first letter of a proper noun is always a capital, for example, America.
- This crime is a capital offense.
Capitol means the building where a government’s legislative branch (the law makers) meets:
- Laura visited the shop in the basement of the capitol after watching a bill become law.
- The capitol has undergone renovations this year.
The word capitol is most commonly linked to the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
Complement is often used to describe things that go well together. It can also be used to suggest a group is full or well-stocked:
- Daniel’s purple raincoat is a perfect complement to his gold boots.
- We have a full complement of staff.
A compliment is an expression of praise:
- Sarah’s cranberry sauce is a perfect complement to our roast turkey.
Where you’ll usually see people trip up with this one is the distinction when describing something as either complementary or complimentary in terms of it being free.
When something is given free of charge, it’s given with compliments. Think of it as something nice being offered, and the correct choice should be obvious.
So a complimentary bottle of wine is being provided free of charge.
A complementary bottle of wine goes well with whatever else it’s being served with.
Okay, this one is also something of an outlier as it isn’t strictly a homophone – but it is a common source of head-scratching.
To lay (and past tense laid) is a verb and means to set down or to place an object:
- She laid the baby down gently.
- I lay out my clothes, ready for the interview tomorrow.
- Did you know flamingos only lay one egg each season?
To lie as a verb means to recline or stay in one place:
- She’s gone upstairs to lie down for a nap.
- The castle lies in ruins.
You’d think that’s easy enough, right? Well, English is well known for being complicated, and the past tense of lie is also lay. So it is also accurate to say:
- William lay face down on the grass.
- Her book lay open on the table.
Lie can also be a noun, and means a deliberate falsehood:
- Why would he tell a lie about his visit to Aunt Ellie?
Getting this one right is primarily a question of tense, and subject. Try to remember that, in most cases, starting with the infinitive to lay means that you’re describing an object that is being set down. It isn’t taking the action for itself.
Though even when it seems to be clear, it’s still easy to find yourself second-guessing your words every time someone in your story takes a break to lie down.
Use principle as a noun meaning a basic or fundamental truth or law:
- He is known as a man of principles.
- Fairness is a basic principle of justice.
Principal is a noun meaning the head of a school or organization. It can also mean a sum of money:
- The principal is a well-respected member of the community.
- All of the winners were paid from the interest without having to touch the principal.
So if you wanted to explain what the strongest reason for something is, that would be the principle reason. When you get it wrong, you might say that a man of many principals has more than few too many staff at his school.
These are just six common examples of word confusion – there are many more out there, of course! Which homophones catch you out the most? Are there any you see on a regular basis that you’d like to add to the list? Share them all in the comments below!