Writer’s Bane: Those Horrid Homonyns

It happens to the best of us. Writing along, fingers flying, prose printing on the screen, then from out of nowhere, it’s ATTACK OF THE HOMONYNS!

Your sexy hero is caught walking “bear assed” down to the fishing hole.

Your sweet heroine awaits him with “baited breath.”

Your pockets are filled with “lose” change and you can’t quit striking “cords” when your “sell phone” rings and it’s someone who desperately needs your “ade” and “who’s” fault is it anyway that there are so many pitfalls in the English language?

(By the way, I am perfectly aware that lose/loose are NOT true homonyms, but writers mix them up so frequently they might as well be)

Your spell checker won’t help you. The homonyms are spelled correctly. A dictionary will help you, but only if you catch the goof and say, “Wait a minute. Is that the right word?”

How to combat the horrors of homonyms?

  • Step number one is acceptance. Everybody gets tripped up by homonyms. Even the most careful writer will write “it’s” for “its” or “lets” for “let’s” or “your” for “you’re” (the most common, by far, homonym errors I see when proofreading).
  • Step two is awareness. You know you’re going to goof, so while you are going back over a piece of writing, make sure you double-check any word that is a homonym, especially those that become homonyms when contracted (you’re, who’s, let’s, it’s)
  • Step three is education. Familiarize yourself with homonyms, common and uncommon. I found a site, Alan Cooper’s Homonym List, that is as close to complete as I’ve ever seen (I love word nerds!). Bookmark the list or even print it. Read through the list, see if there are any homonyms you weren’t even aware are homonyms.
  • Step four is consider the source. Your spell checker will tell you not to worry when you write, “John put the jeweler’s loop to his eye.” The dictionary will tell you the proper word is “loupe.” (And no, I don’t care that dictionaries are unwieldy, old fashioned and out of touch. Until I catch my dictionary in a lie, I will continue to use it.) Ergo, Spell Checker is an unreliable doofus while Dictionary is your loyal friend. Never forget that.

So go forth and write, dear Writers, and keep an eye out for those horrid homonyms.

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13 thoughts on “Writer’s Bane: Those Horrid Homonyns

  1. Great subject!

    I just edited a thesis where the author kept using lye instead of lie. Hilarious – I finally said in the comments something about it being a chemical. The funny part is that I’m sure, once I pointed it out, he said to himself, of course it is. That’s what happens with these things. You know they’re wrong, you just don’t “see” it at the time.

  2. Sherri, I am convinced some writers are “visual” readers and other are “aural.” When it comes to homonyms, visual writers have the advantage over aural writers. Just something to be aware of.

    • The tricky part is knowing the tense. I can commit to memory the fact that a person lies down, however you lay an object down. It’s just once you start switching to past progressive imperfect participle blah blah blah.

      Oh, and I still occasionally screw up its and it’s. And once in a great blue moon, I will accidentally use “your” when I mean “you’re,” but that’s pretty rare.

      Paul D. Dail
      http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

      • When I’m going over my own stuff, I make myself verbally uncontract each contraction. Those errors pop out like weasels in another writer’s copy, but I have a terrible time seeing it in my own. (Hence, even proofreaders need proofreaders)

  3. I hate those. You write one on those, Julia. I will print it out and use it as a cheat sheet. I swear, I have to look it up every time. The rules will not stick in my head!

  4. I have a habit of typing and reading over my work too fast. So I produce sentences with missing letters: ‘is’ for ‘his’ or ‘his’ for ‘this’. For the life of me, I don’t see ’em later no matter how slow I read.

    I’m guilty of all the examples you pointed out, too. They are horrid. Makes one feel so stupid…

    • Only stupid if you DON’T go back and fix them. Many times I will change the font or the image size on the screen. If I’m still having trouble catching stuff with my eyes that my ears insist on “hearing,” I will print a copy. Making it LOOK different helps a lot. Often I will use a ruler to block lines and move through the manuscript backward, line by line so I force myself to see each word and punctuation mark. It’s slow, but effective.

      • Hmmm, you said ‘slow’ and my mind immediately read ‘impossible’. 😀

        It seems the older I get the faster I try to rush through things. I have remember it is not a race.

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