Beware of Homophones

I blame Bill Gates – doesn’t everyone?

Writing good English is hard enough without the false reassurance provided by his spell checker that’s supposed to (yes, you guessed it) check your spelling – but doesn’t. Or, rather, it does but it often gets it wrong.

I’ll rant on about homonyms in another post (I bet you can’t wait), but for now let’s confine ourselves to homophones – those words that sound the same but have different spellings. For the technically minded (everyone else skip to the next paragraph), ‘homos’ is the Greek word for ‘same’ and ‘phone’ is derived from the Greek ‘onoma’ meaning ‘sound’.

Common examples of homophones

For an example look at there, their, and they’re. Three words that sound the same but mean something quite different. In every case two of them will be wrong, but the spell checker will allow them all because they’re correctly spelt English words.

So if you want to appear illiterate, just trust your proof-reading to Microsoft Word – or any of its equivalents. Believe it or not, it is telling me I should have written ‘you’re proof-reading’ in that last sentence. The spelling is fine but it thinks I’ve made a grammatical error. Mad!

Feeling possessive?

Then what about its and it’s? Most people have to stop and think about this one. Not me, of course, and probably not you, but you know what I mean. The confusion arises because we are used to inserting an apostrophe to denote possession. Like the cat’s whiskers, the dog’s dinner, and so on. So why not the cat twitched it’s whiskers? Those whiskers do after all belong to the cat.

The first rule of English is that there are no rules. Or, where there are, they are inconsistent. So it’s – with an apostrophe – only ever means it is or it has. Never possession. Let’s hope that’s sorted out our cat and its whiskers.

Another famous group of homophones is to, too and two. Whilst two is generally well understood, the other two will often be seen tripping up the unwary. If there are any rules I can’t recall what they are.

Why not hire a professional?

For immaculate proof-reading, copy editing or copywriting, it’s always best to hire a professional. They’re usually cheaper than you expect and will make you look good.

You can contact us at info@queensenglish.co.uk

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