Dawned vs. Donned

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This is a guest post by Shelley DuPont. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
Did you ever think you knew the lyrics to a song, only to find out later they were nothing like you thought?  I know I have.

Editor’s note: There’s a word for this kind of mishearing: mondegreen, “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing, esp. of the lyrics to a song.”

Sometimes a writer who has misunderstood an expression passes it on to the reader, with unintended results.

For example, I came across a guest post on how conversations can lead indirectly to gaining more business for yourself.  Anticipating a great article, I eagerly started reading. Right at the end of the introductory paragraph, I saw it. It hit me like a small flaw on an expensive piece of clothing:

 It donned on me…

The context called for it dawned on me, meaning “I understood, I became aware of.”

Wanting to reassure myself that I hadn’t been mistaken in my own understanding of the idiom, I “googled” the phrase as the author used it.  There it was at the top of the page. Google was asking, “Do you mean ‘It dawned on me?'” “Yes! Yes!” I said with some relief.  But this still didn’t answer the question as to why the author chose to use “donned” as the verb.
Used figuratively, the verb to dawn means “to begin to appear or become visible” in the sense of mental enlightenment or awareness.  If something “dawns” on you, then a new understanding has come your way.  This use seems fairly obvious, especially within the context of the article. 

The verb to don, on the other hand, means “to put on clothing,” or, in a figurative sense, “to assume,” or “to get into.”  For example, a recent headline taken from the New York Time’s entertainment page reads,

Amanda Seyfried likely to don “Red Riding Hood”

I suppose the author could have done it deliberately. I did discover a website named itdonnedonme that focuses on competitive 24 hour film making. But the blog title is a deliberate pun on the expression it dawned on me and the blog owner’s name: Evan Donn. The context of the article I was trying to read definitely called for “dawned.”

Maybe the error arose from the writer’s pronunciation of the words dawn and don.

dawn [dôn] rhymes with lawn, yawn and aw (as in “Aw, shucks!”)

don [dŏn] rhymes with on, con and Ron

At this point, I can only conclude that the author, like those of us singing the wrong words for years, has simply mixed up “dawn” and “don.”  By the way, it just dawned on me that I never did finish reading that article.

Shelley DuPont is a former high school English teacher who blogs for local business owners. She actively tutors online ESL students, freelance writes, and paints.

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12 thoughts on “Dawned vs. Donned”

  1. I’ve never heard a difference in pronunciation between “dawn” and “don.” The examples you provide, “lawn,” “yawn,” “on,” “con,” etc. are all pronounced with the same vowel sound in my region (central U.S.). Depending on where the author was from, there may be no difference in pronunciation between “dawn” and “don.” But the expression “it dawned on me” has always seemed obvious, because the idea comes like the breaking of the dawn.

  2. The confusion arises from the North American pronunciation. Donned and dawned sound the same.
    In British English, they sound quite different.
    The o in donned is pronounced as a.

  3. reminds me of a time when i heard a friend say “for all intensive purposes”, when he meant “for all intents and purposes”

  4. Re: “Dawned vs Donned”–I learned to speak English in New York City where there is a clear difference in pronunciation between the two words, but for the last 30 years I have lived in Ohio where the two are pronounced virtually the same. The names Dawn and Don sound alike as well. My “Dawns” and “Autumns” often correct my “mispronunciation” of their names when I use an aw sound. Welcome to my world!

  5. I think this error is probably primarily due to different pronunciations depending on what part of the U.S. a person is from. I’ve lived in different regions, and I’ve noticed in some of the places people said “dawn” and “don” almost identically.

  6. Thanks for all the input! I am originally from the north and my own pronunciation doesn’t differentiate between the “awn” and “on”. The problem I have with blaming various pronunciations is because “donned” and “dawned” have separate meanings.

    So, for all “intensive purposes” (good one Jeff G), I’m going to assume it was merely a lack of clarity on the part of the writer.

  7. In Massachusetts, those words are all pronounced the same way. Seems to be the same in the Seattle area, too.

  8. I love this, because the very same thing happened to me. I found an article where the writer chose to use the word don instead of dawn. Reading the article out loud made me realise that that one word changed the tone of the article, “it donned on me” just didn’t sound right, still doesnt!

  9. I don’t mean to be a jerk. I appreciated the article, and it helped confirm that I was in fact using the right word (words often have surprising senses, and it’s always best to check before you type). Having said that, I am going to point out a very small flaw. This article contains a mixed metaphor: “It hit me like a small flaw on an expensive piece of clothing.” Typically, small flaws, regardless of where they are found, are not in the habit of hitting. They’re a little too abstract for that.

  10. I came here Seeking to differentiate donned and dawned, thank you for leading me to an explanation. But my comment regards mondegreen. Often the mishearing or misspell or misunderstanding results not in ones own fault but from another change. In reality or memories. The mandela effect refers to when a large number of people share a false memory, originally attributed to the existence of multiple universes. Mondegreen is another explanation that does occur but excusing away everytime a mismemory occurs should not get filed away as a mondegreen.

  11. Love and appreciate your input. I don’t remember writing “dawned on me” and needed to do so, but I hesitated. I thought I had better look it up, bc I knew “dawn” was not the only one; I came across your article. Thank you!!
    I do, however, feel compelled to point out a small flaw to Jeffrey. Jeffery, if you are going to pick out such errors, it seems only fair to provide you with a correction. Your comment regarding the point that this article contains, “a mixed metaphor” is, I believe incorrect, itself.
    A simile was used in the article, not a metaphor. The word “like” makes it so.
    The big difference between a metaphor and a simile is that a metaphor doesn’t use the word “like” and a simile does. For example, it’s a metaphor to say “All the world’s a stage,” and it’s a simile to say “All the world is like a stage.” Not a big difference in meaning, but it’s the kind of thing you can get tripped up on if you’re in school and you have to take a test about similes and metaphors!!
    Submitted with the utmost respect,

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