Confession of a Homophone-Phobe

by Janis Patterson

How would you act if you read in a story how a character discovered a grizzly site? Well… how you feel might depend on the situation in the book – and the writer’s command of the English language. A grizzly site is a location where there are large and usually cranky bears. A grisly sight means you are seeing something that is horrible or disgusting. These are called homophones – words that are spelled differently and have different meanings but sound the same.

A few more are brooch/broach, new/knew, great/grate, heir/hair, steak/stake, cash/cache, packed/pact, hear/here, and the two great triads cent/scent/sent and there/their/they’re. These sound-alikes are all over the place; there are lists of such linguistic traps on the internet, many with over 500 entries.

So why the differences? Who knows? English is a powerful but mysterious language with many oddities, and I personally believe these oddities are what makes English great – and when improperly used most definitely grate on one’s sensibilities.

And if one does know English well, grate they do. A misused homophone can yank an intelligent reader right out of the story, which is a horror for good writers. Say you’re reading a romance and the two lovers have a joyous role in the hay. Are they acting? (No, I’m not going down the rabbit-hole of are they faking it…) Is it some form of summer put-on-a-play-in-the-barn theatre? Worse, if the characters are back in the house eating a role it gives me visions of two sitting people at a kitchen table gnawing on play scripts, which as we all know have very little nutritional value.

Another example: in a dark and tortured tale of mean streets and meaner crimes the burnt-out alcoholic police detective stumbles into an alley and finds a grizzly murder. What? Immediately my first thought is how in the world did a large Northern bear find his way into such an urban setting? Sometime it takes a full page before I can become immersed in the story again. And sometimes that never happens, because from then on I have difficulty trusting the writer.

Good writing is easy to read and gently leads the reader into a world that is not their own. Good writing keeps them there for the duration of the story. Good writing is a window into a story, and anything that yanks a reader out of that story is bad. Misuse of homophones is more than bad – it is insulting and a sign of sloppy craftsmanship. Yes, this is one of my pet peeves. Why write a story and expect people to read it if you aren’t going to do it well? Should anyone even try to write a story if they disrespect their readers so much that they don’t care if they are jerked out of it by such egregious misuse of common words?

You would think that learning to use the English language properly is one of the first steps to becoming a writer. I really don’t understand how anyone dares call themselves a writer if they don’t bother to do so.

15 thoughts on “Confession of a Homophone-Phobe

  1. Sometimes the dreaded homophones can be unintentionally hilarious. Prostate/prostrate, bear/bare spring to mind.
    I also read about a ‘grizzly scene’, and since the scene was a plane crash in the Rockies, I gasped, thinking a bear had shown up to feast on the victims. Nope, just plenty of blood.
    Another that will throw me out of a story is reading ‘Here! Here!’ when ‘Hear! Hear!’ is meant. Literally, ‘Hear this, listen because it’s good stuff’.
    Also, reading ‘you’d better tow the line’ instead of ‘toe the line’ . Toe the line is an old military term referring to recruits learning to line up straight. Tow the line would be a mule on a tow path beside a canal.
    And before we blame indie authors, I’ve read all of these, and more, in books put out by the digital first and trad pubs. Some of their line editors seem to rely a bit too much on spell check.

    It’s a tough situation, because one either knows the correct usage, or one doesn’t. And if one does not, how are they supposed to know to double check? Is there an automated writing program that would catch these? I don’t know.
    Best to read with a merciful mindset, I reckon, and just enjoy the story.


  2. Among the many bright spots in an editor’s long workday is responding with humor to the inevitable mistakes among homophones. The most common, in my 50+ years of editing, are “discreet” and “discrete,” matched only by the not-quite-homophonic “hone” and “home” (most often: “she honed in on it”). Lately, in proofing my own speed typing, I find that my fingers must have a mind of their own because I occasionally find an apostrophe thrown into “its”—though my conscious brain (and its somewhat photographic memory) knew it had given those aging fingers the correct message. Muscle memory. I do agree that in my reading-for-pleasure time such errors do more than yank me from the story. They cast doubt on the quality of the storytelling itself because I always, always blame the editor—or the lack of one. In these days of aggressive self-pubbing, I hold the writer at fault for over-confidence in not hiring a professional editor–for whom correcting homophones is as routine as picking lint off a blouse.


  3. Your role/roll examples made me laugh. I know typos sneak their way into almost all books, and a sparsely scattered two or three won’t ruin a book for me, but repeated errors will. I stopped reading a series I otherwise liked because of grammatical errors. It was too distracting.


  4. I’m completely with you on this, Susan. I cringe every time I see a “your” that should be “you’re,” for instance, or a “past” when it should say “passed.” and these errors will definitely pull me out of what I’m reading. I think writers owe it to their readers get these things right.


  5. How Cool! Now that is a true partnership. I’m curious, though – don’t psychiatrists have to be MDs first, and how can someone become an MD without doing an autopsy in med school? Or am I wrong in my facts? (which is not all that unusual) It sounds like you had wonderful parents.


  6. I just saw on TV that the president’s lawyer (in a reply to the WSJ w/ regard to the Paul Manifort case) got “knees” mixed up w/ “needs.” (Bring him to his needs.) You wouldn’t think a high priced lawyer would make that mistake, particularly since I assume he wouldn’t put out something w/out getting it vetted. But there it was. I guess I’m saying this stuff is tricky. I don’t have trouble w/ grisly. But kneed and knead is another matter. Sitting here without looking it up, I can’t remember which one refers to bread. And as far as peel and peal, I guess I do know which one refers to bells and which one to peaches. But as I said, if I know it, I had to memorize it. If spelling was always easy for you, you’d probably be shocked to know it took me years to remember that it’s children instead of childern.


    1. Guilty! Spelling (caveat – most words – there were a very few that I always had to look up!) was always easy for me. I began reading at three or so, so spelling was a normal part of life. Besides, both my parents were professional wordsmiths, so I was held to a very high standard from toddlerhood. I had to laugh at your last sentence – my aunt, who was very close to being a maths genius, always said ‘childern’ instead of ‘children’ her entire life.


      1. Funny about your aunt. I said they were teaching the word method of reading in school, and I couldn’t do it. My mom read fiction to me that I never could have read on my own and probably saved me. I was always in the slowest reading group. Then in 5th grade, it clicked, and I was suddenly in the highest group. But I still have a serious problem. I will go back and read a ms, and it will say, “He was a tree.” And I know it’s supposed to be, “He saw a tree.” I still often read headlines totally wrong and say, “Waaa?” My mom was a chem major who got a job as a lab tech, and my dad was a psychiatrist. She made herself useful to him at Springfield State Mental Hospital. They sent him off to do an autopsy of a patient who had died, and he had never done one. She said, “I’ve done them. I’ll help you.”


  7. Well, this is a case where I think, “should I keep my mouth shut?” Or should I tell you this is reminding me of when my 5th grade teacher used to call me up to the front of the room and yell at me in front of the class for failing the spelling test. I am dyslexic. My husband says when he got the spelling test, he glanced at the words and knew how to spell all of them. I’d get the spelling test and have to memorize every one if I wanted to spell it right. Memorize because my visual memory is poor, and I was taught to read by the “recognize the whole word method” w/ no clues about phonics. I guessed at that until I got it right.. I’ve published 150 books, the majority of them w/ major publishers. I can do most of the jobs it takes to write a book. But when I proofread, I read what I expect to see. And when I get to kneed or knead, I have to think about it. I might get it wrong. And I might not notice it’s wrong. (Yes, I’ve memorized that there’s only an apostrophe in it’s when it’s “it is”); basically I need someone to read my work and fix that stuff. (And yes, I am excellent at grammar and punctuation, probably because they have rules I could learn.) So, sorry, not everybody can get this right. And I have to argue that it’s not being lazy or being a bad writer. It could be a learning disability

    By the way, my husband doesn’t believe heir and hair are homophones.


    1. He doesn’t? I guess the aspirated ‘h’ has a lot to do with it.

      But I know you well enough to believe that you know the difference between the words ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ even if your dyslexia makes it difficult to recognize the letters. I admire anyone with such a problem who works with words.


  8. I don’t think you can blame it all on the writer…don’t editors, etc. read through too.? and no matter how carefully anyone reads through (and through) something will slip in – we are only human. It bothers me too and yanks me out of the story, but I try to remind myself of the above.


    1. I appreciate your point, but I do believe it starts with the author. Yes, editors and others do read it, and they are supposed to correct the author’s mistakes, so part of the responsibility is theirs. However, if the author avoids egregious and needless mistakes, there is nothing to correct. It all comes back to the writer.


  9. Whenever I was overseas people asked about the inconsistency of English spellings. The vagaries of spelling in English is a matter of the history of the specific word. The spelling of any word reflects not only its origins (French, Latin, Greek, etc.) but also the time when it entered our language. There’s not much we can do about it–it’s far too late.


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