Homonyms are words that sound like, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Some of the most commonly confused pairs of words are illustrated in the following examples:
1. “The color complimented her unusual skin tone.”
Unless the color was personified and therefore had the power of speech as well as discernment, it complemented, or enhanced by association, the hue of the person’s skin. Both the noun and verb forms of complement derive form the Latin word for “completion.” Compliment has the same root, but it refers to courtesy.
2. “He assured them he would be discrete about the matter.”
This error pops up frequently in personals ads (or — ahem — so I’ve been told) in which correspondents advertise their desire for a “discrete relationship.” Discrete and discreet have the same meaning, “separate, or distinct,” but divergent connotations. A discrete relationship wouldn’t be very satisfying, because discrete implies a categorical separation. Discreet, on the other hand, refers to secretive or surreptitious behavior — no long walks on the beach.
3. “Despite the real estate boom, he hasn’t joined his ex-patriots in the feeding frenzy.”
People who reside in a country other than the one of their birth are not necessarily there because they are no longer devoted to their own nation, though that is one meaning of the word in question. But patriotism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. Such a person is an expatriate. The root word, patria, refers generally to one’s native country, not specifically to love for it.
4. “The teacher suddenly found herself overcome by a hoard of children.”
We may treasure children, but we don’t refer to a “treasure of children,” and hoard means “treasure.” (It’s from Old English and is related to the word for “hide.”) The writer meant to write horde, which connotes a throng, a mob, or a rabble. Horde derives from the Turkic word orda or ordu, which refers to the abode of a khan, a word for “monarch” or “chieftain.” The English term describes both a nomadic group and a specific political entity of nomads, and more recent usage has adopted the term as a synonym for crowd or the other meanings listed above.
5. “Carefully turning the pages, she poured over the document.”
Poured what over the document? That was careless of her. She would have saved herself some cleaning up if she had pored over the document instead. Pore means to intently gaze, read, or study and, in the sense of a wide-eyed attention, is perhaps akin to the noun pore, which means “passage” or “opening.”
6. “The principle issue at stake is whether it is ever acceptable to lie.”
The definition of principle derives from the Latin word for “beginning”; a principle is an establishing or defining concept. But the issue in question here is the primary one — or, as the writer intended to convey, the principal one. (The head of a school, by the way, was originally the principal, or first, teacher.)
7. “The motorist was sited for reckless driving.”
Well, a police officer certainly sighted the reckless driving, but sited is a synonym for located. After the sighting, the officer issued a citation, and the driver was therefore cited.