I decided that I need to blog about homophones today. (Those are “sound-alike” words, for anyone who’s afraid of the real term. *shakes head*) You’ve probably seen lists of the most frequently confused ones, but some less-common homophones show up a lot in sci-fi and fantasy (and possibly historical fiction).
Mercenary Proofreader can only see descriptions of some character putting magical whatever into a vile (you do know that ought to be vial, right?) so many times without snapping. When Mercenary Proofreader snaps, rants occur. Tirades happen. Sarcastic blog posts are posted. There is even a small chance that someone may get metaphorically thwapped upside the head with a metaphorical cyber-fish. It’s not pretty — although it may be funny, depending on your particular sense of humor and whether or not you’re one of the writers making those homophone errors.
— reign/rein: A king reigns his country, but he reins his horse.
— raise/raze: No one can raise something to the ground unless it started out below ground, because raise means to bring up or lift. They can, however, raze it, meaning to scrape or cut (like a razor does), or to destroy or erase. Please, in the name of all that is good in writing, stop raising kingdoms and empires — or even mere villages — to the ground!
— duel/dual: A duel is a fight; dual means that there are two of something.
— vial/vile: A vial is a small bottle; something that is vile is evil, ugly, disgusting… generally quite unpleasant.
— pigeon/pidgin: The first is a kind of bird; the second is a kind of simplified hybrid language. If you’re not writing about talking birds, don’t say someone speaks pigeon English.
— hair/hare: Pretty straightforward, right? But some writers mix them up, especially in colloquialisms, and the result is funny when it isn’t meant to be. So don’t be a hair-brained writer. 🙂 (Hare-brained means stupid or silly like a March hare; rabbits and hares have a reputation for acting kinda goofy in the spring.)
These are just the ones that come to mind immediately. Can you think of any others?
— phase/faze: A phase is a period or stage in something; it can also be a verb meaning to do something in stages. To faze means to disturb, confuse, disconcert, etc.
— vein/vane/vain: A vein is, you know, a vein. Blood runs through it. Or it could be something like a blood vein — a vein of silver ore (notice the e at the end of that word!) running through stone, for example. A vane is a wide blade-like thing on a windmill, turbine, or the like; it can also refer to a part of a feather. Vain is an adjective; it can mean conceited, self-centered, or having an extremely high opinion of oneself, or it can mean something pointless or useless.
— feint/faint: Yes, I’m sure ‘fainting to the right’ is a great way to confuse your opponent… 🙂 Won’t help you win the fight, though.
— If you’re talking about a structure to hold back flood waters, the word you want is dike, with an i. Spelled with a y, it means something completely different.
— [added Jan 14, 2015] brain/brane: It’s a science thing, but really, if you’re writing about a hypothesis on the possible origins of the universe, calling a brane a brain is rather foolish and will not help your readers take you seriously.