October 4, 2022

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Horrible Homophones

Horrible Homophones

In January, I wrote about Things that bug me more than they should. This post is dedicated to the bane of decent writing everywhere: the rise of the Horrible Homophone.

First let’s tackle what a homophone is, since many people seem to mix homophones up with homonyms. I like this handy-dandy chart:

Homograph Homophone Venn Diagram - Wikimedia Commons. Author: Will Heltsley

Using the graph above, no one would know if you mixed up tire (car wheel) with tire (fatigue) because they are spelled the same. Homophone mix-ups, on the other hand, can make a writer’s blog post or article hard to read or unintentionally hilarious. I have been keeping a running list of homophone confusion I’ve come across online, and it’s surprising (to me at least) in its length. A homophone is a word that *sounds* the same, but the meaning and spelling are different:

  • waivers /wavers: A waiver is a relinquishment of a right or obligation–e.g., a tax waiver form. Someone who wavers is either vacillating or unsteady.
  • pray / prey: Pray–talking to God. Prey–lunch for a wolf. Seen (incorrectly) confused as “They pray upon the weak.” Pray for the weak, maybe. But not “upon” them, that’s prey.
  • bare / bear: Bare–without clothing. Bear–quite a few definitions, ranging from load (bear the weight of the world), to bringing forth (bear a child), to a large fuzzy creature (Smokey the Bear).
  • seems / seams: Seems–appears. Seams–where fabric meets and is sewn (“Coming apart at the seams”).
  • peek, peak, and pique: Peek–quick look. Peak–pointed top, like the peak of a mountain. Pique–to raise interest. So it is “piqued your curiosity,” not peeked or peaked.
  • roll / role: Roll–lots of definitions, from a bread roll to a roll of paper to rolling something across the floor. Role–the part played by an actor or a function in society.
  • insight / incite (these can be particularly amusing when confused in a sentence): Insight–seeing deeply into something. Incite–pick a fight.
  • undo / undue: Undo–take apart. Undue–unwarranted. You undo a bow, most likely to undue praise.
  • throws / throes: Throws–tossing something. Throes–“sharp attack of emotion.”
  • pear, pair, and pare: Pear–fruit, pair–two of something, pare–whittle down. You can pare a pair of pears.
  • sight, site, and cite: Sight–seeing, site–a place; plot of ground (or a website), cite–referencing something.
  • boarder / border: Boarder–a person lodging with you. Border–a boundary line.

And, two more that are just flat wrong but used often enough that it gets under my skin:

  • Writing “per say” instead of the correct “per se.” “Per se” is a Latin phrase meaning “in itself.” “Per say” is a phonetic mess of the correct phrase.
  • Writing “here, here” instead of the correct “hear, hear.” Unless one is calling one’s dog, “here, here” is not correct. “Hear, hear” is the proper use.


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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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  1. bodhi@wildmind.org'

    My favorite homophone mix-up is when people write “bare with me.” Hilarity ensues.

    “Per say” is very annoying, and suggests illiteracy, but nothing undermines someone’s point when they announce “walla!” instead of “voila!” It’s like making your grand entrance with 12 inches of toilet paper stuck to the sole of your shoe.

    One of the most bizarre errors I’ve seen since arriving in the US (I’d never seen it in my native UK) was “chaise lounge” (or even “chase lounge”) for “chaise longue.” It doesn’t seem quite to fit any of the categories above. And it’s very common; I’ve seen websites selling chaises longues that include the mis-spelling in their domain names.

    1. Jen Zingsheim

      Thanks for commenting!

      “Walla” I think would send me over the edge. I don’t think I’ve seen that one…ugh.

      Regarding UK vs. US spellings–my husband was born in the UK, and insists on using “plough” instead of “plow.” Which we do a lot of here in NH. 🙂 Some of those changes, I believe, have to do with trying to intentionally separate the Queen’s English from American English.

  2. bodhi@wildmind.org'

    Prepare to be pushed over the edge: http://bit.ly/hXE8Qv (this is a link to a complex Google search that eliminates references to “Walla Walla.”

    I think “plow” makes perfect sense, but chaise longue is French for “long chair” and has nothing to do with lounging. It’s just one of those cases where people see a new word but can’t actually see it as it is because it reminds them of a more familiar English word.

  3. succubus@gmail.com'

    My favorite is “baited breath” – it always puts me in mind of rancid fish. One waits with bated breath..

    1. Jen Zingsheim

      Ugh, I can’t stand that one either. I think I complained about that in the January post…

      I have seen two more since I posted this piece, so I’m considering making it a regular feature. How about mixing up mall and maul, or waste and waist?

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