Thursday, July 22, 2010

Homonym Traps; or, I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Homonyms. They're sneaky little words, really, slinking their way into sentences where they don't belong, hiding from the spell checker, and then, WHAM! There it is, glaring out at you from the text (usually right after whatever it is has gone to print), and you feel like the biggest doofus ever.

I had two different friends get caught in the same trap this week: the infamous "discrete/discreet" conundrum. Both used "discrete" (separate, individual), when what they really meant was "discreet" (tactful, confidential). They both knew better, but that didn't stop them from picking the wrong member of a homonym pair for their sentences.

Sometimes you can't help it. Your fingers are on autopilot, and they simply type the wrong word. (Mine often want to type "to" where I really mean "too".)

Another homonym trap I saw someone get caught in today was illusive (deceptive, misleading, in the nature of an illusion)/elusive (evasive; hard to catch/grasp). They meant to say that someone was hard to catch up with; instead, what they said was that he was deceptive. Hmmm, that's not quite the same.

Past/passed is an especially tricky one because the words can be used similarly. The train went past the station vs. The train passed the station. The trick to remember is that passed is the past tense of the verb pass, whereas past can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition -- in short, anything but a verb.

A couple of others that I see fairly frequently:

reign: What a king does
rein: Leather strap used to control a horse

Populace: The inhabitants of a place
Populous: Densely populated

vice: A bad habit
vise: A device for clamping things

How can a humble writer stay out of homonym traps? I'm afraid there's no easy answer. Sometimes a grammar checker will catch them, but not always. Spell checkers are definitely not helpful. About the only thing you can do is to just be aware that a word has a homonym, and when in doubt, pull out a dictionary to pick the right one. (Or you could check this list first, to see if the words are on it. It's a pretty extensive list.) Having a second set of eyes to look at something often helps, too.

So which homonyms plot to trap you? How do you catch them?