OOPS! Common Goofs Beyond Its/It’s and Their/There/They’re


Many editor/writer types like myself frequently kvetch about how often people mistake its for it’s; their, there, and they’re; your and you’re; than and then; to, too, and two; and so on and so forth. But there are all sorts of homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs that litter manuscripts (and tweets and posts and billboards and cereal boxes …) and cause all sorts of problems, such as clarity of meaning.

Some of these mistakes stem not from a misunderstanding of the rules of spelling and grammar; rather, they can be the result of typing too quickly, writing in haste, disinterest in proofing your own work, etc. etc. (I’m being charitable here, giving abusers some leeway.) Some of the mistakes stem from laziness. Some from ignorance.

No matter the cause, no one need spend his or her life consistently making the same mistakes over and over. I really wish everyone would band together to stop the confusion. Could we maybe send everyone back to junior high English class?

Probably not.
So, instead, I offer this wee tutorial.

Let’s start by explaining homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs. They’re all related, but each one is a little different from another. Think of homonyms as the top of a ladder above homophones, heteronyms, and homographs. Sort of like this:





Now let’s take a look at the differences among these terms. Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. Homophones are words that sound alike and are spelled alike but have different meanings. Some words are both homonyms and homophones; homophones are a type of homonym. Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, have different meanings, and sound different. Heteronyms are a type of homograph.

Confusing? TMI? Let’s look at some examples:

  • Homonyms
    • ad/add—ad = an advertisement [noun]. add = as in to compute figures [verb]; as in to to join one thing to another in order to increase number [verb]
    • led/lead/lead—led = the past-tense form of the verb to lead [verb]. lead = to command or be in charge of [verb]. lead = a heavy metal (i.e., plumbum), as in Professor Plum killed Miss Scarlet in the kitchen with the lead pipe [noun]
  • Homophones
    • bank—a place where you put your money [noun]; an area of sloping land near a body of water [noun]; counting on or betting on something  [verb]; tilting when turning [verb]; etc.
    • beam—a sturdy piece of wood or metal used to support a ceiling or roof [noun]; a ray of sunshine [noun]; to transmit a signal [verb]; to smile brightly [verb];
  • Homographs
    • bow—the fore of a vessel [noun]; ribbon, string, etc., tied in loops [noun]; to bend at the waist [verb]
    • incense—that smelly stuff that you burn to obscure the scent of pot [noun]; to infuriate [verb])
  • Heteronyms
    • extract—as in vanilla extract [noun]; as in a piece of a larger work [noun]; as in to remove with effort [verb]
    • invalid—an individual who is weak or disabled [noun]; no longer valid [adjective]

The examples above illustrate just  some of the more common words that are often goofed-up. But there are lots more. Here’s a Top 10 list of those I see most frequently (listed alphabetically):

  • accept/except—accept = to agree to receive or do [verb]. except = to exclude [verb]; as in other than or not including [preposition]; as in but for [conjuction]
  • affect/effect—affect = to alter someone or something in some way [verb]; to take on airs [verb]; to evoke emotions [verb]. effect = to cause something to happen [verb]; personal belongings [noun]; lighting, sound, scenery, CGI, etc., used in a production [noun]
  • assure/ensure/insure—assure = to dispel doubt [verb]. ensure = to make sure something does or does not happen [verb]. insure = to arrange for compensation for a loss [verb]
  • a while/awhile—a while = a period of time [noun]. awhile = for a period of time [adverb]
  • discreet/discrete—discreet = careful, circumspect, cautious [adjective]. discrete = separate and distinct [adjective]
  • foreword/forward—foreword = a short introduction to a book [noun]. forward = toward the front [adverb]; a direction in which to move [adjective]; a sports position [noun]; to send correspondence to another person [verb]
  • poor/pore/pour—poor = lacking sufficient resources [adjective]; worse than desired, expected, or usual [adjective]; pore = a small opening [noun]; to study something closely (as in to pore over) [verb]. pour = to flow or cause to flow [verb]
  • principal/principle—principal = first in order of importance [adjective]; the person with the highest authority [noun]; a sum of money invested [noun]. principle = a belief, truth, or value [noun]; a mathematical or scientific theorem [noun]
  • sight/site—sight = the faculty of seeing [noun]; an area, distance, or spot within which someone or something can be seen [noun]. site = an area upon which something is built or constructed [noun]; the location of a event [noun]; to fix something in a particular place [verb]
  • tenet/tenant—tenet = a rule, guideline, principle, or belief [noun]. tenant = a resident of a parcel of land, a building, or other property [noun]

I don’t think its really to much two expect written work too be free of grammatical errors. (See what I did their?) (and there?) Indeed, the internet is full of resources* to help you understand homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs and use them correctly. Words matter. Four accuracy, fore clarity of meaning, for precision, for understanding. Clean and correct writing will make a difference for you’re readers (and four you’re editors). So—pleads oh pleads—take the thyme too brush-up on your understanding and use of these commonly confused words.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and your readers thank you.

March 30, 2018

*Some sites to check out (not checkout):

Anarchy is as detestable in grammar as it is in society.
—Maurice Druon





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