Troublesome Homophones: Why You Can’t Trust Spell-Checkers

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Homophones are words that sound the same (homo = same, phone = voice/sound. Get it?). Homophones can be spelled the same too, like stamp (to bring your foot down heavily) and stamp (the thing you stuck on an envelope back in the days we used paper). This kind of homophone is also a homograph — words that are spelled the same. When you’ve got words that are both homophones and homographs, you’ve got what we call homonyms.

Homonyms are words that are spelled the same (homographs) and sound the same (homophones) , but have different meanings.                         Examples include face (to confront)/face (the front of your head); rose (got up)/rose (the flower); and tire (get weary)/tire (the rubber thing around a wheel).

But homonyms don’t cause any trouble. Since they are spelled the same, writers can’t confuse them. Homophones that aren’t spelled the same are the problems. The grammatical term I use for them is doggone homophones. They are particularly tricky because spell-checkers don’t catch them — the incorrect spelling results in a different word, and spell checkers can’t understand the context to know it’s wrong.

The only thing you can do is learn the difference between the spellings. And this isn’t easy because English is chock full of homophones. In fact, there are so many that covering them will require several blog posts. But I do not flinch at the task before me. For the record, I only plan to address the common homophones that we tend to confuse.

I’ll do this alphabetically — just the A‘s today.

ad/add

Kids often include the second d when they mean a commercial advertisement, rather than the basic math process. You’d think it would be easy to remember that ad is short for advertisement.

The forty-seven televised ads added too much time to the baseball game.

affect/effect

There can be a subtle difference in the way you pronounce these words, but for most of us they are homophones. They may be the most troublesome of all because their meanings are closely related. They both have something to do with influence. In their most common uses, affect is a verb and effect is a noun, but they have more obscure uses where that is reversed, and that causes additional confusion.

If you can remember that affect is (usually) a verb meaning to act on or influence, and effect is (usually) a noun meaning result or consequence, you will be right most of the time. For a more detailed video explanation I recorded, click here.

John’s speech affected everyone, and the effect was visible.

aisle/isle

This one produces some funny mistakes (e.g., The bride walked down the isle). The one with the a means a pathway for walking; the other is an abbreviated form of the word island.

Between the palm trees on the deserted isle was a long grassy aisle.

all ready/already

All ready is actually two words — an adverb (all) modifying an adjective (ready). It means really, or completely ready. The single word version, already, is an adverb meaning by now or even now.

By the time Madison was all ready for the dance, her date had already arrived.

all together/altogether

This is similar to the previous one. All together means everyone or everything together. Altogether is an adverb meaning completely. If you can rewrite the sentence by separating all and together, you know you mean all together, not altogether: Let’s sing all together now can be rewritten Let’s all sing together now.

Bertha was altogether reluctant to participate in the play, even though we were doing it all together.

allowed/aloud

Allowed means permitted. Aloud is an adverb meaning audibly, or the opposite of silently.

In the library, we were never allowed to talk aloud.

altar/alter

Altar is a table or platform used in sacrifices for religious services. Alter is a verb meaning change.

A little sanding and a little paint will nicely alter the church’s dilapidated altar.

arc/ark

There’s a nice way to visualize the difference between these two. The arc with a c is the curved shape, like a c turned forty-five degrees. An ark is the boat Noah built or a chest like the one containing the Ten Commandment tablets.

God’s promise was symbolized by the arc of a rainbow that rose above Noah’s ark.

ascent/assent

Ascent is a noun meaning a climb, or the act of moving upward. Assent means agreement.

With our assent, the head of our mountain climbing team thought it best to make the ascent in the morning.

aught/ought

Aught is an old word meaning anything. It’s opposite is naught, meaning nothing. Ought, on the other hand, is a synonym of should.

When the kindly beggar asked for food, I knew I ought to give him aught I could.

aural/oral

Both of these words are adjectives and have to do with sound. They are therefore easily confused. Aural has to do with hearing and oral with speaking. Aural is of the ear and oral is of the mouth. I think of the word audio to remind me of the difference, or you might think of an open mouth making an O.

Tom played music as he spoke, giving a nice aural component to his oral report.

 That’s it for the A’s. Twenty-five letters to go!

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. Gary Redmond
    Gary Redmond04-21-2013

    I think of myself as a writer who wants to learn how to write. I also have some issues with a life time of poor writing skills and problems related to attention deficit disorder. I rely heavily on the judgment and advice of my computer spell check.

    I certainly relate to what you are achieving with this blog and I think that it is great to educate and help others learn. Homophones and Homonyms are the type of words I miss-spell over and over often repeating the same mistake with the same words.

    One thing that does bother me a tad is writers or readers who are anal linguistics who fail to appreciate the creative story. I wonder at times who has the real problem? The over compulsive linguistic criticizer of each flaw to a fault. Or the artist who’s enthusiastic vision lacks the linguistic skills to merit the acceptance of today’s literary minds.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko04-21-2013

      Good thoughts, Gary. I agree with you. Writers like us need to keep working and learning, but the grammar police need to relax a bit. In fact, I’m working on a workshop right now title: Confessions of a Reformed Grammar Legalists, and it’s about exactly that topic. I’ll be giving it several times at homeschool conventions, starting this week in Alaska.

  2. CFloyd
    CFloyd03-07-2012

    No kidding, brother! if I don’t catch my misuse or my computer’s of such troublesome words, I am up for judgement by some of my more grammary-type friends. I know this because I hear them talk about how primative some people are who misuse their and there and they’re. Or my one friend, hates when someone doesn’t notice or know their uses of chose and choose, lose and loose. GEES! Picky, picky picky. You knew what I MEANT! it’s email for Pete’s sake – is this referring to St. Peter, or some random factory worker from the late 1800’s? I may have to revise my usage if St. Peter is involved. That’s not a grammar issue though is it. Is it an idiom? A cliche`? Good night what’s the difference?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko03-11-2012

      Yeah, I’m seeing the silliness of grammar fascism more and more all the time. I am interested in grammar and linguistics, but I don’t know why people can get so worked up about what they perceive to be errors.

      For Pete’s sake is definitely an idiom and a cliche. I don’t know anything about its history though. Might be worth investigating.

  3. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz03-07-2012

    Another big one is were/where, as in:

    The writers were out out touch with where the grammar world was headed.

    Technically, the two words aren’t pronounced the same, but I often see them confused on WriteAtHome student papers.

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