A while back, I decided I needed to blog about homophones. (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 of the less-common homophones show up a lot in sci-fi and fantasy (and historical fiction, too).
Mercenary Proofreader can only see descriptions of a character putting liquid magical whatever into a vile 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 these homophone errors.
NEW: Alphabetized for your convenience!
(I will not be adding to this list for a while, because I intend to use it as part of The Grumpy, Grouchy Old Man’s Guide to Grammar, and I want to save any new material for the book.)
♦ baited/bated: Let’s get one thing clear right away: don’t ever write that someone “waited with baited breath.” That conjures thoughts of smelly, rotten cheese for catching catfish, and I very much doubt that’s what you intend. (Although, now that I think about it, you could make use of it exactly that way in a humorous zombie story: “Dead Fred Goes Fishin’.” Feel free to use that idea — I don’t need it.) As a verb, bait means to taunt, annoy, or lure. On the other hand, bated breath means the person’s breathing indicates anxiety or suspense: they’re holding their breath in anticipation. (The fact that the spell checker on Facebook may not recognize bated in no way means it isn’t a word. You do know that, right?)
♦ baron/barren: The former is a low-ranking nobleman; the latter is something bare or not fertile.
♦ berth/birth: [added April, 2020) I never thought anyone would mistake thsese two, especially not someone who generally writes well, but… *sigh* In case you actually don’t know, the latter refers to, y’know, someone or something being born, whereas the former refers to a ship’s mooring place, a bed or other place to sleep…
I♦ boarder/border: *shakes head* I keep reading about fictional countries having to guard their boarders from invaders. While I’m sure the boarders are grateful, it does seem to me that it would be more efficient to simply keep the invaders out of the country in the first place so they never get anywhere near the boarders. Boarder: one who boards. (Board itself has more than one definition.) Border: the edge, margin, or boundary of something. Inns have boarders; so do ships, sometimes, which may or may not be a good thing. However, countries and book pages both have borders.
♦ bridle/bridal: The former has to do with horses, mostly; the latter has to do with, y’know, brides and weddings and stuff. I did not expect (or want!) to see one mistaken for the other.
♦ cannon/canon: A cannon is a large piece of artillery. Canon, on the other hand, typically means a collection of texts accepted as genuine/correct.
♦ cord/chord: A cord is a thin rope. A chord is a group of musical notes played at the same time.
♦ don/dawn: Are you shocked that anyone would need to be told these don’t mean the same thing? I’m shocked… Don, as a verb, means to put on — lots of donning of cloaks in historical novels and such. 🙂 Dawn refers to the beginning of a day, or to some other beginning when used metaphorically.
♦ duel/dual: A duel is a fight; dual means that there are two of something.
♦ eek/eke: To eke may mean to make something last by doling out gradually, or it may mean to barely do something. Eek is an exclamation of surprise/fear: Eek, a mouse!
♦ eve/eave: Eve means the time right before an event, as in New Year’s Eve. An eave is the overhanging edge of a roof; it is usually used in the plural, eaves.
♦ 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.
♦ fir/fur: Why, why do you kids do this…? I would have sort of expected someone, somewhere, to use fur when fir is the correct word, but the other way around? *hits head against wall several times* Fir is a kind of tree somewhat like a pine. Fur, of course, is the pelt of a mammal. If you say a person is dressed in fir… Well, unless you truly mean they’re wearing a garment made of conifer needles, or the wood of that tree, you’ve chosen the wrong spelling.
♦ gaiters/gators: Gaiters are like spats, but taller; they’re coverings for the lower leg and upper part of the foot. Gator, of course, is short for alligator, and technically ought to be spelled with an apostrophe in front to indicate dropped letters. (I got this one from my friend Grace, who says she’s seen too many steampunk costumers refer to wearing gators on their legs. Maybe they actually mean it the way they spell it — these are people who sometimes wear cuttlefish on their heads, after all — but probably not.)
♦ hair/hare: Pretty straightforward, right? Some writers mix them up, though, especially in colloquialisms, and the result is funny when it isn’t meant to be. 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 goofy and reckless in the springtime.)
♦ hoard/horde: A hoard is what a dragon (or book lover) has; this word may also be a verb, meaning to keep a hoard. A horde is a large group of people. Unless you’ve got a dragon character who collects people instead of gems or books, don’t refer to his hoard as a horde.
♦ 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.
♦ 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.
♦ 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 — see?), 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! You kids are freaking me out…
♦ reign/rein: A king reigns over his country, but he reins his horse.
♦ roll/role: Role means function or part played; in the acronym RPG, the R stands for role. (For decades, gamers have sometimes deliberately misspelled this word for satirical purposes, indicating a particular game system or player is more concerned with the dice rolls than with the decisions of the players.) As a verb, roll means to turn over and over on an axis; its definition when used as a noun is closely related to this.
♦ sew/sow: Sew means to join with stitches; sow means to plant seeds. In non-literal usage, you cannot sew dissent, confusion, etc., but you can sow (plant) it.
♦ soot/suit: This one is also from WordPress’ easily confused spelling/grammar checker…
♦ straight/strait: One describes something that doesn’t curve, bend, or deviate; the other means something narrow or confining. (Those white jackets with the extra-long wrap-around sleeves and the little buckles in the back? Straitjackets, not straightjackets.)
♦ vial/vile: A vial is a small bottle; something that is vile is evil, ugly, disgusting… generally quite unpleasant.
♦ wail/wale/whale: A wail is a sound: a loud, usually lamenting cry. Whale may mean a large marine mammal, or it may mean to hit vigorously. You can wail at someone, but you cannot wail on them. (A wale is a raised line, such as the ridges in corduroy fabric. Chances are, you’re not going to need this term very often.)
♦ wield/wheeled: Please, please don’t say someone knows how to wheeled a sword. (This one is actually brought to you by WordPress’ unspeakably stupid spellchecker: ‘You used the wrong word; it’s supposed to be wheeled.’ No, it really isn’t.)
♦ wreak/reek: Reek may be a noun or a verb, and refers to a really bad smell. Wreak is a verb and means to inflict.
♦ wretch/retch: The former means an unfortunate or unhappy person; it may also mean a person worthy of contempt — like a scoundrel or rogue, but completely lacking any “coolness” factor. The latter means to vomit or to make the sound of being sick.
♦ yay/yea: The first is an expression of joy or approval: “Yay! I don’t have to go to school today.” The second is an old-fashioned word meaning yes: “Yea, sire, the frog-kisser-for-hire is at the gate again, just as you predicted.” (Yeah, an informal version of yes, is pronounced differently: short a instead of long.)
♦ yolk/yoke: The first is the stuff in the middle of an egg. The second is the thing worn by a pair of draft animals when pulling a cart or whatever. You cannot have a yolk of oxen unless your bovines hatch from eggs, and that’s just weird.