From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The third of a ten-part series.
#8. Word Contortion: Homophones Can Trip (if not amuse) the Reader
Some folks confuse similar-sounding words and use them in an inappropriate context. These are the homophones I encounter most often, in published works as well as unpolished drafts.
Yeah, yeah, I know more and more people are using voice recognition software to dictate their work and this type of error may creep in. Even more reason to remain alert—and not rely on spell check. It may be an innocent mistake, but readers are unlikely to see it that way.
Then vs. Than
This one surprised me, because I could not understand how these two words could be confused. That said, I have a sister who interchanges them, and I have seen it in manuscripts; other editors have assured me this is a legitimate concern.
- Then = relates to time, to indicate what has happened or what will happen next.
Beer was a lot cheaper back then.
We’ll go for a hike, then grab a beer.
- Than = conveys a comparison, to indicate a difference of some kind.
The oatmeal stout tastes better than the IPA.
She is taller than her husband,
Past vs. Passed
This surprised me as well, although not as much as the previous example.
- Past = refers to a period of time before the present (in days past) or a distance. It can be a noun, preposition, adjective, or adverb, but never a verb.
Noun: The team played well in the past, but not this season.
Preposition: Meet me at half past
Adjective: It’s past time for you leave.
Adverb: On the road again, he drove past intriguing rock formations.
- Passed = the past tense of the verb to pass.
She passed the test.
The quarterback passed the ball to a wide receiver.
As the days passed, she became lonely.
On the road again, he passed through a number of small towns.
Conscious vs. Conscience
I see this frequently.
- Conscious = being awake, knowing what’s going on around you.
He remained conscious during the ride to the hospital.
- Conscience = an awareness of being either morally right or wrong.
I didn’t want a dead dog on my conscience.
Thus, conscience does make cowards of us all.
Course vs. Coarse
Of course, I expected to encounter this off-course confusion in coarse grammar.
- Course = a line of direction or school classes.
The boat drifted off course.
She enrolled in a difficult course.
- Coarse = refers to something having a rough, unfinished surface or, in the case of describing a person, an unrefined or unpolished demeanor.
Sandpaper has a coarse surface.
She spoke to him in a coarse manner.
Decent vs. Descent
- Decent = being polite, moral, and honest, or showing kindness.
- Descent = an inclination downward, or a step downward in a scale of gradation, as in genealogy.
- incorrect: He is a kind, descent human being.
- incorrect: In mountain climbing, the decent may be more difficult that the climb.
- correct: He is a kind, decent human being.
- correct: In mountain climbing, the descent may be more difficult that the climb.
Are vs. Our
I see this occasionally but include it here because I saw this in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, written by an academic or a politician; either way, he should have known better. I wondered how anyone could miss this; then I wondered if this is sign of things to come.
- Are = a verb; present tense of to be.
- Our = a pronoun, refers to sense possession, of belonging to us.
- incorrect: The coming storm may postpone are weekend plans.
- correct: The coming storm may postpone our weekend plans.
Hint: Pronounce our as ow-er (as in hour), rather ar.
Plaintiff vs. Plaintive; Judicial vs. Judicious
I include these two examples just so you don’t think I’m only singling out self-published authors. I lumped them together because I found both of them in a novel by best-selling mystery writer Sue Grafton.
He’d get paid whether the jury found for the plaintive or not. If the plaintive prevailed.
The plaintiff may have been plaintive when cross-examined, but I hardly believe the jury would find for a tone of voice. (Mind you, stranger things have happened.)
I would have dismissed this as an unfortunate oversight, but it showed up again fifty pages later:
The next document was a divorce decree in which Evelyn Chastain Dace was named as the plaintive . . .
I can’t imagine Grafton making this error, which leaves me to conclude that an editor changed Grafton’s original text. Horrors!
. . . which meant that by judicial placement among similar cans, the Boggarts could have their trash picked up on a regular basis . . .
Seriously? A judge ruled on the placement of trash cans? Well, I suppose that could happen in a hoity-toity neighborhood, but in a homeless encampment? Again, I can’t imagine Grafton making this mistake; she generally exhibits a judicious choice of words.
Bare vs. Bear
- Bare = adjective: someone or something not having a covering, such as clothing, shoes, or a hat, or not covered by leaves or grass.
- Bear = verb: to carry or support.
- incorrect: I don’t know how she could bare laying there all day.
- correct: I don’t know how she could bear lying there all day.
Note: I address the “laying” vs. “lying” issue in #10.
Peek vs. Peak vs. Pique
- Peek = verb: to look at someone or something secretly or briefly.
- Peak = noun: a mountain with a pointed or narrow top, or in reference to highest point of an event or career.
- Pique = as a noun, it refers to a sudden feeling of annoyance or anger; as a verb, it refers to something that causes curiosity or interest.
- He stood looking at her as if he had been caught peaking in a window.
- Ward shouted at Sally in a fit of peak.
- The unusual rock formation peaked his interest in geology.
- He stood looking at her as if he had been caught peeking in a window.
- Mt. Everest is the tallest peak in the world.
- She had her peak performance during the Olympic Games.
- Ward shouted at Sally in a fit of pique.
- The unusual rock formation piqued his interest in geology.
Lightning vs. Lightening
- Lightning = noun: a sudden electrostatic discharge from a cloud.
- Lightening = verb: to make light or clear, to illuminate, to grow lighter or brighten.
- incorrect: The lightening struck a tree.
- correct: The lightning struck a tree, lightening the dark sky.
Principal vs. Principle
- Principal = most important, consequential, or influential; a person who has controlling authority or is in a leading position; financial: the amount of money borrowed and must be paid back.
- Principle = a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right and wrong and that influences your actions;
I like the irony in this example:
- incorrect: It’s against Dad’s principal to lend money.
- correct: It’s against Dad’s principles to lend money.
- correct: When Dad collected on his loan to the school principal, he demanded interest in addition to the principal.
Capital vs. Capitol
- Capital = adjective: punishable by death, chief in importance or influence relating to or being assets that add to the long-term net worth of a corporation or entity.
- Capitol = the building or city in which a state, provincial, or federal government meets or is located.
- incorrect: The loan gave him the capitol he needed to start a new business.
- correct: The loan gave him the capital he needed to start a new business.
- incorrect: Washington, DC, is the capital of the United States of America.
- correct: Washington, DC, is the capitol of the United States of America.
Advice vs. Advise
This example—along the with final one—did not surprise me; I frequently see these two words interchanged.
- Advice = noun, an opinion or suggestion given by one person to another.
- Advise = verb and describes the action of giving one’s opinion or recommendation to another.
- incorrect: I gave advise to my brother-in-law regarding his financial predicament.
- correct: I gave advice to my brother-in-law regarding his financial predicament.
- correct: I advised my brother-in-law regarding his financial predicament.
Affect vs. Effect
This is the most abused pair of words in the English language (excepting, perhaps, #1 in this series). Generally, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. However, there are instances where their roles are reversed.
- Affect = as a verb it refers to making or causing a change.
The coming storm may affect our weekend plans.
- Effect = as a noun it refers to achieving a result or having an influence.
The coming storm may have an effect on our weekend plans.
- Affect = as a noun it refers to emotion.
The psychologist said she had a depressed affect.
- Effect = as a verb it refers to causing or influencing something.
By protesting the proposed development, the activists hoped to effect change.
- Oxford Dictionaries: Language Matters — Oxford Words blog
- Daily Writing Tips blog
- Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers
Still to come:
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves