Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How Do You Feel About Homophones?

by Janis Patterson
I will admit to being picky, but I believe that words should be respected.
Words are how we communicate. The slightest difference in word choice can change the meaning of a sentence completely. The exact right word makes our writings sing. However – there is a plague worming its way through our world, destroying our ability to communicate accurately – Homophones.
Homonyms – words spelled just alike but having different meanings and perhaps different pronunciations – are bad enough, but at least you can get the idea from context. When someone writes ‘he rose from the chair’ you can be pretty sure they’re not talking about the flower.
Homophones share the same pronunciation, but are spelled differently and have different definitions, which – if misused, as they are all too often – makes comprehension into rhythm-breaking work. Think ‘we went two the mall’ or ‘the horse pulled at the reigns.’ See? It sounds okay if you read it aloud, but as far as reading purposes go the reader is jerked right out of the story.
For example, something that sends me up the wall is when someone talks about ‘brooching a cask of something-or-other’ or ‘giving someone a beautiful broach.’ These both happen all too often in historical romances. ‘Broach’ means to open, whereas ‘brooch’ is a piece of jewelry. I have these incredible visions of a wooden cask decorated with a diamond pin…
It gets even worse when three spellings/meanings get involved. For an example that I see far much too much of, ‘Take a sneak peak!’ For Heaven’s sake, what does the top of a mountain have to do with sneaking? It conjures up visions of sneaker-clad climbers tiptoeing to the top. Didn’t the writer realize that ‘peak’ is the top and ‘peek’ is a quick look? To say nothing of pique (curiosity or prickly emotion)… Then there’s vain–vein–vane and pare–pear–pair and lots of other examples. Each is a perfectly good word in itself and each has its own meaning. I don’t care how much it sounds like another word, they aren’t interchangeable.
Sheer and shear have totally different meanings. So do coarse and course, and seamen and semen. (Don’t worry – I’m not going there!) Rhyme is a totally different word from rime, Samuel Taylor Coleridge notwithstanding! Raise and raze are total opposites
What makes it truly bad is that some of the most egregious examples of homophonic mayhem I have ever seen come from writers. (Unlike the cruelties often perpetrated upon apostrophes, which terrible in the world in general. That form of ignorance is why I began the AAAAA – the American Association Against Apostrophe Abuse. Someday I hope it will have another member.)
I will accept that everyone makes a mistake now and then, usually in an email or short note when the capture of an elusive idea is more important than the form, and I am lenient about such. A private communication is one thing, but a public presentation is another. What makes me howl is seeing these ignorant mistakes in theoretically formal writing that is meant to communicate ideas and communicate them correctly – books and articles and advertising. How likely is someone to think that a book is good when the blurb enticing us to buy it contains such errors?
Words are precious; they are our stock and trade as well as our tools. We should use them accurately and treat them with respect, just as by using them correctly we show respect to our readers. Language is a wondrous thing. We shouldn’t abuse it.

PS : for a fun and incredibly long list of  homophones, go take a look at http://www.cooper.com/alan/homonym_list.html

19 comments:

Morgan Mandel said...

When I'm not sure, Google is my friend. I can always find a dictionary there. I don't always trust Word. I've found some obvious mistakes in Word's spell check.
Morgan Mandel

marilynhudsontucker.com said...

I was teaching English in high school when spell checkers and grammar checkers were instituted. My students would look at me in disbelief when I told them the checking programs were incorrect at times. It happened again when I was a technical writer from 2000 to 2009. People would blindly follow the computer programs, not realizing that they were just algorithms. By the way, I would like to be the second member of AAAA.
Marilyn

Rose Anderson said...

Great post Janis. Thanks for sharing.

Susan said...

Morgan, Marilyn, Rose - thanks for coming by. I don't know whether to be more amazed that mechanical spell-check devices are so often incorrect or that people trust them so implicitly. Personally, I believe that nothing will ever truly outdo an old-fashioned, hold-in-the-hand, turn the pages dictionary.

And Marilyn, you are now officially the second member of AAAAA!

Janis, aka Susan

Phyllis said...

We've heard it over and over. I can't look it up because I don't know how the word is spelled. Personally, I look for the day when I go to a dictionary and simply say the word. The dictionary will pull up every word it sounds like and you pick from list. Now, that is my kind of dictionary!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great post, Janis. What bothers me most is "alright" instead of "all right". Even well educated people make that mistake.

Norah Wilson said...

Enjoyed the article!
The one that drives me crazy is when people use "discrete" when they mean "discreet".

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I concur--good post! I believe the problem stems from children receiving a less demanding education these days. Also, cutting back on editors is a mistake of publications.

Allison Chase said...

As an acquiring editor, sometimes I want to beat my head against the wall, as opposed to beeting my head, which conjures up a hair full of bright red pickled beets, lol. Between homophones and an utter inability to use proper punctuation (should we really eat Grandma?)I sometimes wonder what's taught in English classes these days. Sorry, I get cranky when it comes to this subject!

LD Masterson said...

Sadly, I read my grandchildren's school papers and their teachers either don't notice these errors or have given up trying to correct them.

And my spellchecker says I can't use "grandchildren's". I'm not sure why.
Is the AAAAA going to come after me?

MelissaMayhue said...

Great post. And I loved the list you recommended. Thanks so much!

~ Melissa

Mary Ricksen said...

Great blog!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I loved this post.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I loved this post.

Jana Richards said...

Fun post Susan. I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person, but I still make stupid homophone mistakes on occasion. Thankfully, I usually catch them, or at least I think so!

Susan said...

Thanks to everyone for responding - I think we're all pretty much in agreement that more education is needed - people need to care about words and their proper usage. Yes, we all make mistakes, but we all need to try not to!

And don't worry, LD - the AAAAA isn't going to come after you, since you did try!

Again, thanks everyone!

Janis, aka Susan

Carole Price said...

Great post. I think this comes from people being too busy to take the time to edit properly...to smell the roses...you see where I'm going with this.

Earl Staggs said...

I'd say you're write on target with this, Susan.

Wait a minute. I mean right on target.

;-) I'm with you. We don't notice these things in speech, but when I see them in print, I can't reed any further. Ooops. I mean read.

Barry Knister said...

People should care about such things, and they do--when they've been liberally educated instead of "trained." The trouble is, a dwindling number fit this description. As a consequence, bringing up points of accuracy and correctness will get you either a long stare, or something much more insulting. You are now a snob, a pointy-headed intellectual, etc. I stopped bothering long ago.