7 Common Homonymic Spelling Errors

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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.

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22 thoughts on “7 Common Homonymic Spelling Errors”

  1. Eggcorns are much more about misquoted or misused phrases or sayings rather than the misuse of single homophonic words.
    Homonyms/homophones are much more about words with similar sounds but different spellings, leading to a mistake in usage.
    Classic examples in addition to the ones on this post are:
    their, there and they’re
    to, too and two
    effect, affect,
    pole, poll
    who’s, whose


  2. Good catches. My favourite malapropism came from a client who wrote “dissumulate” instead of “disseminate.” These mistakes would be funny if they didn’t make it more difficult to understand each other. On the other hand, they should guarantee work for writers and editors.

  3. The Die Hard DVD case shows an image of a tall building and claims it contains “40 stories of terror”… Unless the building is a library, I think it means “40 storeys of terror”.

    The other mixed-up word that bugs me is reign/rein/rain. I often read about a politician tighting his reign on the budget… I think the metaphor is about tightening the “rein”, as in pulling back on a horse.

  4. Being in real estate, it’s not uncommon that I get an email or text from a client saying they’ve found a home that “peaked” their interest. I want to respond with “PIQUED!” but it’s not worth the loss of a client. My personal favorite is when we sit down to write an offer and they hand me a check with “Ernest Money” in the subject line. Who is this Ernest and why are you using his money for your earnest money check?

  5. Kale:

    I feel your pain. The remote nature of writer-editor interaction has benefited many writers whose necks have been spared a good wringing.

    Ernest Money? Isn’t that Eddie’s younger brother?

  6. Andy:

    I perceive that you do not live in the United States. Stories is the American English plural of story.

    Yes, I’ve seen reign misused, and the day after I wrote this post, I noted that poured was misused in an article in a major newspaper.

  7. Mark: “stories” is the English plural of “story”, too; but “story” (a tale) and “storey” (a level in a building) are different words.


    Andy: “story” is an allowable alternate spelling of “storey” in proper English, too, so the plural “stories” is actually correct.

  8. I learned about “discrete/discreet” in my seventh-grade English class. The way I learned to tell them apart was that one meant “secretive” and the other meant “distinctly separate”, and since the t in “discrete” separates the two e’s from each other, that spelling has the “separate” meaning. Using that mnemonic, I’ve never mixed them up.

  9. I used to confuse principle with principal, and for a while I assumed that “principal” was a made-up spelling after hearing “I put the *pal* in principal” on The Simpsons.

    This article got me to search the eggcorn topic. One that always gave me trouble was “One fell swoop.” I used to imagine a waterfowl, homing (or honing?) in on their prized supper from above, and nabbing it with sniper-like accuracy in “one fowl swoop.”

    I have a friend who often writes the word “bummer” as “bumper”. He says “I’m totally bumped out today,” or, “That’s a real bumper, man.” Is that more of an eggcorn too? Perhaps he’s making the mental imagery that “the part of a car most likely to get rammed is not the kind of mood association you want.” I’ve never heard him say it, so he could also imagine that the “p” is silent.

    Dire straights, anybody?

  10. Mark Nichol must be from the USA. He used the work “CHECK”.

    I shall “check” that you wrote the “Cheque” out for the correct amount.

    Why do Americians confuse these two words and use CHECK for CHEQUE?

  11. Sorry, a “typo”. Should be “Americans”. It is late at night and I have spots in front of my eyes.

  12. Peter:

    Americians (I like that spelling — looks and sounds gentler than “Americans”!) don’t confuse the one spelling for the other — we use one instead of the other. Blame Noah Webster.

  13. Hi Mark.

    Yes, much spelling is set by people in a power position. When the printing press was invented, the scholars of the day wished to retain the “Latin” roots within words, so the “B” was placed back in the words “doubt” and “Plumber”. Many other words were changed. Even your family name and my family name changed. In Latin it is Nicolaus. Some added the “H” into the name when the name was translated out of the Gaelic into English. All very interesting isn’t it? Regards- Peter

  14. Why do Americians confuse these two words and use CHECK for CHEQUE?

    Because Americans aren’t French. We check in every instance. Why don’t the English anglicize their language? They could put it all in one program in a catalog, while they smoked a cigaret and went on maneuvers.

  15. I dont know why, but for some reason beyond my understanding, i always confuse the words Been and Being while writing. I sometimes, while writing have to struggle to put the one i think is correct in a sentence. Any help?

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