Word Nerd: Hold the (Homo)phone!
4 years ago
So time for a little pro-pedantry.
Well. Not exactly pro-pedantry, because I’ll never exactly celebrate the mania for small-minded semantic corrections, but as I’ve shared my pet peeves before, suggesting ways in which, as a writer, you may put off editors and agents (or certainly me), I thought it might be time to share some common errors you might be making as a writer (or at least, I certainly find some of the writers I work with make them all the time). Specifically, errors of word substitution; and more specifically, errors of homophone substitution.
Watts a Homer phone subs tit you shone?
Well, I’ll tell you. Okay, I doubt any of you don’t actually know this – it’s pretty much school-level stuff – but to cover the bases, homophones are pairs (or groups) words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like beech (a tree noted for its straight, pale timber) and beach (a sandy strip of shoreline). Homophones aren’t, of course, to be confused with homonyms, which are words that are actually spelled the same, like skate (bladed or wheeled footwear) and skate (a type of flat fish).*
Homophone substitution is a common error in which, as you can probably figure out, a homophone is substituted for the intended word. Some of them get people up in arms on the internet all day long, like there, their and they’re, or whose and who’s, and people love to sneer at other people for using them wrong on Facebook, because obviously people tapping out a quick message about tomorrow’s barbecue or sharing a picture of their cat are going to take the time to spellcheck their fucking post.
Above: Being smug on the internet.
But those? They don’t bother me so much. Mostly because, when I’m on the internet, I want to read about people being angry at the government, that really cool sandwich you just made wrapped in bacon or the adorable thing someone’s toddler just did,‡ and I can’t bring myself to care that much when I’m not being paid to. But also because, in my actual job, those errors rarely come up. You guys are writers; you write professionally, and that’s pretty entry-level stuff.
Which doesn’t mean that writers never stumble on homophones; just that the homophones writers stumble on are generally at a higher, more interesting level. And I’m going to take a moment now to share six of the homophone substitutions I come across most often in my work.
Cannes wee sea sum eggs arm pulls, PLEAS?†
- Discreet/Discrete: This one comes up more than any other, so watch out for it. Both derived from the Old French discret for “different,” discreet means “subtle” while discrete means “separate.” My theory is that discrete looks smarter, with its handsome split digraph, which makes people think it must be the correct one.
- Phase/Faze: Not an every day one, but remarkably consistent. Phase, from the Latin phasus, is a cycle or state, so a plan may have many phases or the Flash might phase through a brick wall; while faze, from Kentish English feaze, means to scare or cause to hesitate. Again, I suspect aesthetics. The f and quite unusual z may lead people to assume this is a modern misspelling of the older, classical word rather than a completely different word.
- Breech/Breach: I get this one all the time. A breach – related to the word break – is a gap or tear, as in a violation of a contract or a collapsed fortification; a breech – related to breeches – has a number of related meanings to do with buttocks. Possibly mostly confused due to sheer inattentiveness, but not helped, I suspect, by the breech of a cannon or rifle, which is named for being at the back of the chamber rather than for the opening where you insert the next round.**
- Lead/Led: So in the calm light of day I probably don’t need to tell you that (where the two rhyme) lead is a dull, heavy metal and led is the past tense of the verb to lead. When caught up in writing, though, I suspect the brain – in its unending search for exploitable patterns – decides that since the past tense of read is read and the past tense of feed is fed, then clearly lead must follow read rather than feed. Or something. Either way, look out for it.
- Bait/Bate: Comes up pretty often, I suspect mostly from people not knowing the origin of phrase “bated breath” (which is where it usually comes up). So for your benefit, bait means to attract fish or game with a morsel (or alternatively to taunt), and bate means to reduce or contain. Bated breath, then, is held breath; baited breath, if anything, is breath that smells of chowder.
- Reign/Rein: Another of those confusions I suspect mostly come from being caught up in the writing. To reign, of course, is to rule (it helps to think of the Latin regina, for “queen”), while to rein is to control (usually a horse) with reins, leather or rope straps.§ This error comes up most often in the phrase rein it in, which of course refers to slowing or stopping a horse by gently pulling on the reins. What makes this one particularly dangerous is how similar those two meanings (which come from completely different Old French roots, regner and resne) seem. After all, between “the reins of power” and “a reign of terror” there’s a degree of overlap.
There are others, if perhaps less pervasive – formerly and formally, passed and past – but these are possibly the six I encounter most often. Memorise them, and you’ll make your editor’s life a tiny, tiny bit better.
*”Hang on,” I hear you cry, “if it’s the same spelling, surely it’s just the same fucking word?”
But no! Bad word nerd! Of course, homonyms sometimes drift out of shared roots, like canon (an approved body of work, or – increasingly – the “official” history of a fictional world) and canon (a type of senior priest), which are derived from a common root meaning more or less “a reliable standard,” but consider the two skates, which come from the Dutch schaats (footwear) and the Norse skata (fish). Clearly you can’t consider them the same word, by any means.
At any rate, wherever they came from, the grammarian world settled some years ago, by and large, on considering any two words with noticeably different meanings (rather than just being used in different parts of speech, or extending the meaning, or figuratively) wholly different words.
†eggs am pulls, for our American or Northern English readers.
‡Just as well, because that’s what I’m getting like it or not.
**Or breech birth, with refers to the baby’s bottom rather than, as many assume, the damage it can do to the mother. Which is kind of a negative assumption, really.
§And, of course, reindeer are so named because they’re big enough to ride, or pull a sleigh. Literally “rein deer.” Which is pretty cool.