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.