Our topic for this edition of “Notes from the Proofreader” is the tricksy homophone. The online edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a homophone as “one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling.” Think their, there, and they’re or peak, peek, and pique.
The English language is chock-full of homophones. This is due in part to nonstandard spelling being the norm up until the 1400s, the haphazard way we went about standardizing our spelling, and our penchant for “borrowing” words from other languages, sometimes more than once.*
When homophones are spoken, we’re pretty good at discerning by context which word is meant. When written, we look to both spelling and context. If the wrong spelling is used, the reader may be amused, confused, or quite possibly both. Unless your intent is to make a pun, it pays to be paranoid about making sure you’re using the correct word. Spell check will not catch these types of errors, sew awl weighs check yore righting—ewe can never bee two careful. Keep close at hand a list of the homophones you know you consistently confuse, and refer to your dictionary whenever you’re in doubt.
*Jonathon Owen, “Homophones,” QuickAndDirtyTips.com, September 19, 2013, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/homophones.