Words We Confuse That Spellcheckers Miss, Parts K and L

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K and L in coins

The next stage of our alphabetic journey though homophones that make spelling difficult…

kernel/colonel

Colonel is one of the most strangely spelled words in English. The l is pronounced like an r and the second o isn’t pronounced at all. There’s just no way that word should be pronounced the same as kernel. But that’s English for you. The k-version refers to the seed or edible, central part of a nut. It can also be used metaphorically to refer to the central part of an idea. The one that isn’t pronounced the way it’s spelled is a military rank.

There was a kernel of truth in what the Colonel was saying.

knave/nave

Knave is the first of a series of silent-k homophones (I’ve always found the idea of a silent letter a bit oxymoronic). In the Middle Ages, it meant a servant or a man of low position in society. It eventually came to mean an unprincipled man — a scoundrel. A naveis an architectural term referring to the long aisle that leads from the entrance to the front of the altar.

The knave absconded with the offering plate right through the nave of the church.

knead/need

Bakers knead dough. It’s when they work it into consistency by folding, pounding, and stretching it. The rest of us need dough. You know, in the money sense. Heck, you know what need means.

“I’d like to come to the party,” said the baker, “but I need to knead.”

knew/gnu/new

Knew is the past form of the verb to know. Young writers often mistype it as new, the common adjective. Sometimes it’s the common words that pose the most problems. Rarely does anyone confuse these two homophones with gnu, which is a stocky kind of antelope found in some parts of Africa. A gnu is also known as a wildebeest.

I never knew the zoo acquired a new gnu, did you?

knight/night

Both of these common words have crazy spellings. That’s why we see the common (and often intentional) misspelling, nite. Just remember that if you mean the dude wearing shining armor and riding a bold stallion, you need the k.

The knight searched for the maiden throughout the night.

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knit/nit

Knit is a verb that is probably familiar to your grandmother. Knitting is creating fabric by looping yarn with needles. It’s come to mean more than that, of course. It can mean to join closely together, as in a close-knit family. A nit, on the other hand, is the egg of a louse, usually found attached to hair or clothing fibers. Nit-picking, therefore, (not knit-picking) is literally the searching for and removing of lice eggs. A pleasant thought, huh?

My nit-picking aunt criticized the sweater that I knit her.

know/no

Everyone knows the difference here. They just don’t pay attention when they confuse these ultra-common words. If you are in the realm of ideas, learning, and information, you mean know. No is the negating word, popular with parents and three-year-olds everywhere.

I don’t know why I have no money.

koi/coy

Koi are the colorful fish — a type of carp — that look good in backyard ponds. Coy is an adjective meaning playfully, intentionally reserved, modest, or reluctant.

The coy young girl refused to meet the handsome prince by the koi pond.

lager/logger

Lager is beer aged for a certain time. A logger is someone who works with logs — a lumberjack.

After work, the logger enjoyed some lager. (That one was easy!)

lain/lane

Lain is the past participle of the verb lie. A past participle, FYI, is the form you’d use with has, have, or had: “You have lain around the house all day!” A lane, of course, is a narrow road, channel, or passage.

That forgotten bouquet has lain in the lane all week.

lase/lays/laze/leis

A rare quadruple homophone! To lase is to give off a beam of light, like a laser, or medically to cut something as with a laser. Lays is the present tense of the verb lay: “My husband lays bricks for a living.” Laze means to hang around idly; to be lazy: “You don’t have time to laze around, we’re going to be late!” And leis are the flowered necklaces or common in the Hawaiian Islands.

After receiving leis from the hotel staff, Aaron lays himself in a hammock, Sharon chooses to laze by the pool, and Karen visits the spa to have someone lase her facial hair. (That one was hard!)

lead/led

Interestingly, lead is both a heterograph (with led) and a heteronym (see this post to learn the difference). Lead (pronounced led) is the heavy, soft metal. Led is the past tense of lead (pronounced leed). Weird, right?

Stan led the race until just before the finish, when his tired legs began to feel like lead.

leak/leek

A leak is the problem you call a plumber about. A leek is like a small onion.

The plumber who fixed our faucet leak smelled like garlic and leeks.

lean/lien

The more common word is lean, which means to incline or slant in a particular direction — literally or figuratively. It can also mean thin or malnourished. A lien is a legal word meaning a claim on another’s property to secure payment of a debt or other obligation.

I missed a few payments when my paychecks were lean, so the bank put a lien on my house.

lessen/lesson

Easy mistake here. Lessen is a verb meaning to make less or reduce, while a lesson is something taught.

Mrs. Gumphry, the conservationist, taught a lesson on how to lessen pollution in local rivers.

levee/levy

A levee is a kind of dam or embankment erected to keep river water from overflowing. To levy is to collect or impose a tax.

In order to pay for the rebuilding of the levee, town officials voted to levy a tax on property.

liar/lier/lyre

A liar is someone who tells lies. A lier is someone or something that lies, as in an ambush. A lyre is a stringed musical instrument. Of the three, lier is the least common.

Tom says he can play the lyre, but he’s known to be a liar.

lie/lye

Lie, confusingly, has two common definitions: to tell an untruth and to recline. Lye is a concentrated chemical substance that is highly alkaline. it used to be used in soap. Now it’s sometimes used in household cleaners and drain openers.

Sarah said she was shopping for lye, but that was a lie.

lieu/loo

Lieu means place or stead. It is typically used in the expression in lieu of, which means in place of. Loo is a euphemism for the bathroom or toilet.

Campers often use trees in lieu of an actual loo.

lightening/lightning

Lightening is a form of the verb lighten, which means to make lighter. Without the e in the middle, the word is lightning, which is a bolt of electricity taking place during storms.

The sudden and surprisingly beautiful lightning had the effect of lightening our mood.

lode/load/lowed

A lode is a collection or deposit of ore, usually in a vein. It can also refer less formally to a rich supply of something. Load is a common word. As a noun, it’s something carried or transported or the weight supported by a structure. As a verb it means to put on, in, or into. Lowed is the past tense of the verb low, which is another word for moo — the sound cattle make.

The miners loaded the carts coal from the valuable lode while the oxen lowed.

loan/lone

A loan is an amount borrowed. Lone is an adjective meaning single or alone.

If I give you this loan, you must be the lone recipient.

loath/loathe

People mix these up so often, I may need to write a separate post about it. Loath is an old adjective meaning reluctant. To loathe means to hate.

Brought up in a loving home, Bill was loath to admit he loathed his neighbor.

loch/lock

This is rarely a problem, but loch is the Scottish word for lake. Thus Loch Ness means Ness Lake. Just don’t misspell it Lock Ness.

My Uncle MacGregor never locks his house when he goes fishing on the loch.

loot/lute

To loot is to rob, plunder, or carry away. As a noun, loot is simply the stuff that has been robbed, plundered, or carried away.  A lute is a stringed, musical instrument.

The pirates’ loot included several rare musical instruments, including a medieval lute.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Lois
    Lois08-24-2012

    I wish there was a way to differentiate in the spoken word, these homophones. When I was in the Air Force, my unit flew with a 4-star General and his plentiful staff. They were treated royally in a meeting room on the plane. We underlings in the jump seats were smelling popcorn and suffering by not having any. When we disembarked, someone at the rear of the line asked if there was any popcorn left. I could see in the room, and I replied there was nothing left but a couple of dried up old kernels. A Major appeared in the doorway after gathering supplies, and I could tell by her countenance that she did NOT appreciate my comment. Embarrassed, I clarified lamely, “Kernels of POPCORN!!” Sigh. It didn’t help my case that my supervisor was chortling, “Dried up old colonels! Ha-ha.”

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-25-2012

      Great story, Lois. Thanks for sharing.

    • Will
      Will08-31-2012

      It’s nice to be able to look back on moments in your life and laugh at them, as you were likely doing when you posted that, Lois.

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