Homonym Hell

Choosing the wrong word will at best make readers laugh, at worst make you look illiterate. Shake a fist at the etymological powers that be if it makes you feel better, but here are some tricky homonyms we see and hear misused often.

road signs with conflicting messages“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

Homonyms: words that sound the same but have different meanings, origins or spellings. Not all of these are homonyms, but people mix them up as though they are. Here’s a quick test of your homonym prowess. Fill in the blank with the appropriate word from the brackets.

(illusion, allusion)

The movie Gnomeo and Juliet was an obvious ______ to Shakespeare.

(stationary, stationery)

All the ________ is missing from my desk.

(cite, site)

You must ______ your sources.

(sense, scents)

Too many ______ in one room make me sneeze.

(then, than)

I like sweets better ______ ice cream.

(insure, assure, ensure)

______ the baby doesn’t fall down the stairs.

How did you do? Find out below.

allusion – illusion
Illusion: something that misleads, points to a reality that doesn’t exist.
David Copperfield uses illusions to perform many of his tricks.

Allusion: a passing or casual reference to something else.
The allusion to Shakespeare in Gnomeo and Juliet was obvious.

accept – except
Accept: to agree to or receive something.
I accept your apology.

Except: often paired with ‘that’ and used in place of otherwise, but, and only.
I would hire her except that she lies.

I would accept that excuse for missing work, except that I saw you at the baseball game on TV.

elicit – illicit
Illicit: forbidden or against the law.
Cocaine is an illicit drug.

Elicit: to draw out or evoke.
The baby’s smile elicited grins from all the adults

further – farther
Further: a superlative to farther, a more distant point.
That horse ran further than ever before.

Farther: at a great distance.
Grandma’s house is farther down the road.

loose – lose
Loose: (verb) to set free or release; (adverb) not tied or fixed in place.
My son has a loose tooth.
Loose the hounds!

Lose: to misplace; cease to retain, have or gain.
I hate to lose at checkers.
Did you lose your keys?

Pick up the loose change in the cushions before you lose it all.

ensure – insure – assure
Ensure: to secure or guarantee.
Please ensure your seat belt is fastened.

Insure: to arrange for compensation in the event of damage, injury or loss.
In Canada, insuring your vehicle is mandatory.

Assure: to dispel any doubts.
I assure you, it’s a bad idea to stick objects up your nose.

To ensure that people insure their vehicles, be assured that police will ask to see your license, ownership, and insurance.

than – then
Than: used as a comparative.
My dress is prettier than yours.

Then: Denotes time – immediately or soon after.
I did the laundry, washed the dishes, and then went to bed.

tact – tack
Tact: knowing what to say or do to avoid giving offense.
Streaking across the gym lacked tact.

Tack: a pin with a flat head; also a sailing term, and an equestrian term referring to riding equipment; see dictionary for others.
I dropped a tack on the floor, be careful.
The saddle goes in the tack room.

sense – scents
Sense: hearing, seeing, taste, touch, smell – a method of perceiving stimuli; a perception or  feeling.
It’s said that other senses are improved when one is damaged or impaired.
I sense that you’re angry with me.

Scents: a distinctive odour or smell.
Strong scents make me sneeze.

cite – site
Cite: to quote something or someone, especially an authority.
You must cite all sources in your article.

Site: a position or location of a town, building, etc.
The proposed site for the new court house requires the demolition of the bus terminal.

stationary – stationery
Stationary: to be still or in one place.
A stationary house is a stable one.

Stationery: materials used to write notes, letters, etc.
Business Depot is a great place to buy stationery.

Break – to separate or cause to separate
Don’t play baseball in the front yard, you could break a window.

Brake – a device for stopping a moving vehicle, usually by friction; something that stops or slows action
Air brakes make a lot of noise.

Check out Marcy’s post on the 6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers.

What are some of your favorite homonyms?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

7 comments on “Homonym Hell

  1. How about elusive and illusive, pored and poured, and reined/reigned/rained? I can’t believe how often I see professionally-produced books where people pour over maps and are given free reign.

  2. Pingback: 6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers « Girls With Pens

  3. Pingback: Friday FabOoolousness – June’s MarvOoolous Mashup & Blog Awards | Tiffany A White's Ooo Factor

  4. If you dont mind, where do you host your web page? I am shopping for a great web host and your webpage appears to be quick and up just about all the time

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