Funny Homophones

Don't accidentally write something funny.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read


Today's topic is words that can get you into trouble.

Once upon a time, some mistaken citizens stood up for American principals, p-r-i-n-c-i-p-a-l-s. Across the Atlantic, a nutty queen sat on her thrown, t-h-r-o-w-n. Somewhere nearby, an inattentive writer poured over his manuscript, p-o-u-r-e-d. All this made me, a copy editor, chuckle. Yeah, I guess I could defend a school principal if necessary. But no, I’ve never sat on a past participle before. And, tell me again what that special someone was pouring? Comic relief, perhaps?

Common Word Errors

Yes, today is Wrong Word Day, and we’ll be spending some time laughing at other writers. Word errors are funny—as long as someone else has goofed. And it’s easy to goof, because lots of words sound or look alike. Probably thousands of pairs and trios exist to confuse the unready. Hanger with an e sounds like hangar with an a. Palate, meaning "the roof of your mouth," sounds like pallet, meaning "a portable platform," and also like palette, meaning "a range of colors," and they're all spelled differently. You get the idea. The list is interminable; the possibilities for word mix-ups, endless.

Word errors are a real problem because they slip in unnoticed and are extremely hard to catch—even if you’re a seasoned writer who proofreads closely. Even copy editors aren’t immune: I once wrote chocolate moose—m-o-o-s-e—when referring to a luscious brown dessert. I can excuse myself because I was only eight, but if you write for a living, there is no excuse.

Why to Avoid Common Word Errors

As a writing professional, you must stand up for correct writing principles, with an le. (Although you can also stand up for a principal, with a pal, if one is in trouble.) As a wordsmith, you must protect your throne, t-h-r-o-n-e. (If you sit on a thrown, with an -o-w-n, your subjects will throw you off immediately.) As a diligent writer, you must pore over your work carefully, p-o-r-e. (You can pour—p-o-u-r—while you pore, but please make sure it’s something liquid.)

When you pick the wrong word, your readers laugh at your amusing sentence. It’s great to put them at ease with a joke or two, but if they’re smiling at what you wrote in all seriousness, that’s not good. Other readers don’t laugh; they cringe and wince, lament and vent. Some sticklers just stop reading.

If you’ve ever written discreet ending in -eet instead of discrete ending in -ete, it’s really not your fault, though. You can blame your brain, which sometimes takes a little vacation. You’re writing quickly so your ideas don’t evaporate. You’re paying attention to plot and dialogue. You’re thinking about that luscious brown dessert you promised yourself—if you write enough. You’re completely unaware that you accidentally wrote this:

“The patient’s body becomes tense as she steals herself to endure the dental procedure.”

S-t-e-a-l-s? I’m dialing 911 right now to report that patient for larceny!

How to Avoid Word Errors

All these similar-sounding words give our language depth, but they can also give you a big headache. However, you don’t have to celebrate Wrong Word Day if you don’t want to. You’re probably already taking some basic precautions. You look words up in the dictionary, and you use spell check on every piece. Butt, dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes! It doesn't work for these troublesome homophones.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.