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