Basics of writingConfusing words

Common homophone usage errors among writers–Part 2

From Rick:

Last week I covered a bunch of often confused homophones, and gave you ten more (below) to look up on your own.


Because you did that (you did, right?), you know the difference between a cool draft (of a breeze) and a cool draught (of beer)–although this latter spelling is chiefly British. Just as you now know that one feints in a duel to avoid being hit by one of the dual swords your opponent is wielding (or maybe you faint at the thought of being stabbed), one cooks meat on a grill not on the grille of one’s automobile, you hoard stuff and stay away from a horde of people, you shouldn’t have a hostile intent when you stay in a hostel, and–unless you’re a werewolf–when phase of the moon is full, it doesn’t faze you. You go forth on the fourth of July to have fun. And you probably don’t want the heroine in your romance novel addicted to heroin.

One reason certain homophones cause problems is that while they’re common in speech, we see them less often in writing. One example is “faze.” We hear it all the time as, “That didn’t faze me at all,” meaning it didn’t bother or affect you in any way. It’s become more common in print, but I still see it gotten wrong a fair amount.

This week we’ll cover some more troublesome homophones. I want to concentrate on several that often cause confusion because, again, they’re more common in speech than in writing. First, though, I want to cover some easy ones, and I’ll do those with example sentences.

IDOL/IDLE: During my idle moments, I worship my idol.

JAM/JAMB: The other day I had to repair a broken door jamb, and during a break, I made a sandwich of jam and peanut butter on bread. It’s a quick snack when you’re in a jam.

KNOCK/NOCK: I opened the door after the first knock to find someone standing there with an arrow nocked in a bow and aimed at me.

LED/LEAD: I led him into my workroom to show him the lead figures I was painting. [Note that “led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced leed in this instance), so don’t say, “I lead her astray” when you mean “I led her astray.”]

LIGHTENING/LIGHTNING: I see this confused a LOT. “Lightning” is what you see during a storm. “Lightening” means to make lighter (as the lightening predawn sky).

MARSHAL/MARSHALL/MARTIAL: A marshal is a law-enforcement person who might be involved in marshaling forces to enforce martial law. “Marshall” is an older and alternative spelling of “marshal.” It’s also a more common spelling for a person’s first or last name.

MEDAL/MEDDLE: You won’t receive a medal for meddling in someone’s affairs.

MIGHT/MITE: This might get a mite (meaning a small amount) difficult. The latter is also the spelling for certain small insects.

MORNING/MOURNING: In the morning she was still in mourning over the death of her dog.

PAIN/PANE: Punching your fist through a window pane will probably cause you a lot of pain.

PEAK/PEEK/PIQUE: The peak of a mountain or peak of a roof. When something piques your interest, you might peek at it so no one sees you. [I see “peek” and “peak” used then “pique” is meant. The word is related to “piquant,” meaning sharp or spicy.] The growing plant roots peaked up the soil around them.

PEDAL/PEDDLE: You peal a bicycle, but you peddle your wares.

POOR/PORE/POUR: The poor student poured himself a cup of coffee to keep him awake while he pored over his notes to study for his exam.

PRAY/PREY: Pray that you won’t become prey to some wild animal.

PROFIT/PROPHET: The prophet told me that I would not profit from the business deal.

RAISE/RAZE: To “raze” something means to demolish it–go figure. They razed the old building to make room for new apartment buildings.

RIGHT/RITE: A religious rite.

ROLE/ROLL: He showed up for roll call and landed a role in the play.

SIGHT/SITE: Sight relates to vision, but a site is a place. He was a sight for sore eyes when he showed up at the construction site.

SOLE/SOUL: He had to sell his soul to become sole owner of the house.

STEAL/STEEL: Steel is a metal, but at a verb is means to harden or strengthen, usually oneself against some hurt or emotional pain. He tried to steal a fine steel sword. She steeled himself against the emotions that would build if she wasn’t careful.

STRAIGHT/STRAIT: A strait is narrow channel joining two bodies of water. Head straight through the strait to safety.

TAUGHT/TAUT: I taught him to keep the string taut or the kite wouldn’t fly.

TEAM/TEEM: As the rowing team navigated the river, they saw it teemed with fish.

THROES/THROWS: Once that monster throws you hard onto the ground, you’ll be in your death throes.

THRONE/THROWN: He would have thrown the ball at the throne had the prince been sitting on it.

TIC/TICK: Each time he ticked off another name, he felt a nervous tic in his eyelid.

TIMBER/TIMBRE: Timber refers to wood. Timbre refers to sound and mean the pitch, volume, and sound quality that distinguish one sound from another. The timbre of the musical instrument. The timbre of Jane’s voice is different from Mary’s.

VAIN/VANE/VEIN: A vain attempt; don’t take someone’s name in vain. A weather vane. A vein carries blood back to the heart. I took it in the vein he meant it: as a compliment.

VIAL/VILE: A vial of vile and disgusting liquid.

VICE/VISE: My only vice is eating chocolate, but touch my candy and I’ll have my hands in a vise-like grip around your neck.

WAIVE/WAVE: To waive the admission fee or to waive requirement. To wave one’s hand.

WET/WHET: The smell of the food on the grill whet my appetite. First, I needed a cold draught to wet my lips.

RAIN/REIGN/REIN: On our way to the castle, on the last day of the old king’s reign, the downpour of rain caused the driver to rein in the horses to slow carriage on the muddy and rutted road.

Okay, having had some fun with those, let’s cover the last six, ones that are apt to cause problems due to less frequent use in writing.

RACK/WRACK and REEK/WREAK: I’m going to bow to the Internet to explain these because they’re somewhat complicated–

Rack and Wrack confusion

Wreck, Wreak, Reek

And more on Wreak

I’ll let you look up the following three sets:


I’ll leave you with one final bit of clarity.

WAIL/WALE/WHALE: A crying baby wails. A wale is a red raised mark on the skin (a weal or welt), one of the parallel ridges in fabric such as corduroy, and it’s a one of the heavy planks along the side of a ship (gunwale). Everyone knows a whale is an aquatic mammal. But which of these words do we use to mean someone beating or thrashing on someone else? Did Bob wail, wale, or whale on Jim?

Happy New Year from Rick and Scott!

And may no one WHALE on you in 2013.


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