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 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.