Back in the distant days of your elementary-school classrooms, your teacher worked hard to help you understand a concept called homophones. If you’re like most people, homophones bedeviled you then, and they probably still trip you up now and again.
“Homophones are those words that sound the same, even though they have very different meanings…”
Homophones are those words that sound the same, even though they have very different meanings (and often, strikingly different spellings). The first example most of us learn is “to, too, and two.”
You may have tried to force those memories of elementary school and spelling tests out of your brain, but if you have to write as a part of your job (and who doesn’t these days?), you could probably benefit from a refresher course in these tricky word pairs and trios. After all, in business writing, accuracy is critical — and even when a misuse of a homophone doesn’t destroy the accuracy of your message, it offers the potential to be embarrassing and make you appear to be less intelligent than you really are.
Misused homophones abound these days, largely because of a wonderful technological marvel called the spellchecker. We tend to put our complete faith in these handy tools, even if they can’t always tell whether we’ve used the right word or its sound-alike cousin. As we write, we tend to hear our words in our minds, and our fingers type what we hear. If we fail to go back and double-check for homophones, we run the risk of destroying the meaning of what we wrote.
Professional writers aren’t immune, either. One recent news story about a police chase told of the suspect being “on the lamb.” Unless the crook really was saddled up on the back of a juvenile sheep, the writer meant “on the lam.” Sounds identical, but the meanings (and mental images) are vastly different.
Another news story about an assault said the suspect “undressed her from the waste down.” I had images of Lady Gaga wearing an outfit made of trash, or perhaps someone who was stuck headfirst into a landfill. Of course, the writer should have written “waist.”
If accurate writing is important to you, it pays to become homophonobic, and to put that fear into learning and recognizing those words that sound right, but just aren’t. For starters, consider the following examples, which are the most common misuses I see, although they’re in no particular order.
Principal/principle. A “principle” is a moral precept or basic concept upon which other concepts or actions may be based. When used as a noun, a “principal” is a person in charge, and when used as an adjective, it refers to something that’s first or most important among others. If the main reason you went to the grocery store was to pick up a gallon of milk, it was your “principal” objective. If you don’t cheat on taxes because that would be wrong, honesty is the “principle” upon which that decision is based. And if the Golden Rule is the main factor behind the decisions your local school’s administrator makes, that would be your principal’s principal principle.
Counsel/council. The word “counsel” is most often used in business to refer to attorneys and what they provide. It can also refer to any advice you receive from a professional. A group of people gathered for a particular task is a “council,” as in the town council. If an attorney tries to offer you legal council, fire him.
Cite/sight/site. When you reference something, you “cite” it. Something you have seen is a “sight.” And a physical location is a “site.” A location for information on the Internet is a “website,” not a web sight or a web cite.
Reckless/wreckless. Doing something without regard for the law or common sense is a “reckless” action. Someone who drives like an idiot is said to be reckless. The people who avoid contact with him? We’ll call them “wreckless,” since they haven’t had an accident. A reckless driver might be a wreckless driver, but only if he or she is very fortunate.
Aisle/isle. The word “isle” is a shorter, more poetic choice for “island,” while an “aisle” refers to a passageway or a row (such as the dairy aisle at the supermarket). If you tell me that your product was inspired by the Emerald Aisle, I’ll have to assume that there’s a green hallway in your office.
Pour/pore. I see references to CEOs pouring over documents, which can be messy. In those instances, the writers mean “pore,” as in “study carefully.” “Pour” involves carefully dispensing something upon or into something else. So either the CEOs were spilling some unknown substance on the documents, or someone else was pouring a big ol’ pitcher full of CEOs on that paperwork.
Diffuse/defuse. Something that is diffused has been spread out far from its original state (like a drop of dye in a gallon of water), while defusing something is a step taken to make it less dangerous (such as taking the fuse out of a bomb or calming an argument among co-workers).
Complement/compliment. A “complement” is a full set of something, or an object that has a logical connection to another. A nice Cabernet is a delightful complement to a perfectly grilled steak. A “compliment” is what I’ll pay you if you use “complement” correctly.
Discreet/discrete. This one gets misused a lot, especially among IT folks. “Discreet” refers to being tactful or judicious, while “discrete” essentially means physically separate. Your accounting and customer information systems can be discrete, but they’re probably not discreet (although you hope that the folks in your accounting and customer information departments are discreet by nature).
Allusion/illusion. An “illusion” is something that really isn’t there, although it appears to be. An “allusion” is a reference to something else, often in the form of a metaphor. “The Senator alluded to his opponent’s bill when he poked fun at measures that provide an illusion of fiscal responsibility.”
Disburse/disperse. This pair is especially tricky, because both words involve distribution of some sort. In business, “disburse” almost exclusively involves handing over money in payment for something, while “disperse” refers to something that is scattered, such as grass seed tossed all over a new lawn.
Stationery/stationary. Something that is “stationary” doesn’t move. Something that is “stationery” is the letterhead paper, envelopes, and business cards your company uses. Nearly all stores are stationary, but only a few of them sell stationery.
A lot/allot. If you have many things, you can say that you have “a lot.” But if you’re distributing something on an equal or prorated basis, you are “allotting” it. As in: The sales manager ordered a lot of notepads, and will allot two cases to each territory. Finally, there is no such word in English as “alot.” If you’re using it, stop and switch to the choice you really intend; either “a lot” or “allot.”