Word Choice: Homonyms and PhD Language



Which witch is which? They’re over there with their parents. To be, or two bee – which is the right question?

Homonyms trip up more writers than any other words. The most common mix-ups are usually those dealing with apostrophes, especially it’s vs. its and they’re/their/there. And you can’t rely on a spell check program to find these errors for you. They aren’t spelled incorrectly – but they are often used incorrectly. Listed below are some of the more common problems:

  • It’s/its: It’s is the contraction for “it is”. If you read your sentence and can substitute “it is” in place of it’s, then you’ve used the correct word, as in: It’s (it is) going to rain. Its is a possessive pronoun meaning something belongs to “it” as in: the dog gnawed its bone.
  • There/their/they’re: There is an indication of place: Put the box over there. Their is a possessive pronoun: It is their car. They’re is a contraction for “they are” as in: They’re (they are) going to be at the party.
  • Who’s/whose: Who’s is a contraction for “who is” as in Who’s (who is) going to be at the party? Whose is a possessive as in: Whose book is this?

The following are other commonly misused words. They are not necessarily homonyms, but may sound similar due to regional accents. Others sound distinctly different but are often used incorrectly.

  • Poring/pouring: poring means to study closely (poring over a book), the second means raining hard or decanting from a pitcher
  • Principle/principal – the easiest way to remember the difference here is that the one that ends in “pal” (your friend) is the person who is in charge of a school.
  • Berry/bury – not a homonym, but often pronounced the same way. Berry is something you eat, bury is something you do.
  • Already/all ready – We’re all ready to leave (meaning the group) vs. Is it time to go already? (a time designation)
  • All right/alright – all right is the preferred usage. Alright is slang and not considered good writing.
  • Breathe/breath – Breathe (a verb) is what you do; breath (a noun) is what you take. She took a deep breath. Help him; he can’t breathe.
  • Drug/dragged – the first one is a chemical that you take, the other is what you do when you haul something (we dragged the body).
  • Gorilla/guerilla – the first is a large ape, the second is a fighter who sneaks around in the shrubs.
  • Lead/led – the past tense of lead (rhymes with seed; means to guide or be in front of) is “led”. Lead (rhymes with bed) is a soft metal. If you are leading someone down a path, once you’ve arrived at your destination you can say you led him there.
  • You’re/your – The first is a contraction for “you are”, as in: You’re going to do what? The second is the possessive form of “you”: That is your bed.
  • Choose/chose – The first is the present tense: I’ll choose the pasta dish. The second is the past tense: I chose the pasta last night, not the steak.
  • Loose/lose – unlike choose/chose, these two words are not related. The first means not tight: The tie is too loose. The second is what happens when you come in last: You lose.
  • Then/than – Then is an adverb meaning at the time in question; next, after that; therefore – as in: She won the first and then the second round. Than is used to show a comparison between two things: I would rather have chips than popcorn. She was smaller than he was.
  • Rappel/repel – the first is to descend a mountain or building with the use of a rope: He rappelled down the steep cliff. The second is to fight off or disgust: We repelled the enemy at the river.

There are hundreds of other examples. If you have any words you’re not certain about, check them out in the nearest dictionary. Ah, but what if you don’t know how to spell the word? Okay, dictionaries can be difficult to use if you can’t spell, but you need to know how to at least spell the basics. Try spelling the word in question as well as you can and check surrounding words. You might get lucky and find it. Unfortunately, this won’t help with words that start with silent consonants such as gnaw, know, or pneumonia.

In addition to dictionaries, many writers rely on their computers to find mistakes for them. I have a love/hate relationship with automated spell checkers. They are great for a first time read through, but, please, don’t rely on them to do the entire job. For that you need a good reader who knows words. A second set of eyes is immensely helpful. If you’ve mistaken the word “than” for “then”, a spell checker will not pick it out. As in the above homonyms, they’re spelled correctly – but often used incorrectly.

Speaking of misused words, there is an instance where the wrong word is not only appropriate, but is used to comedic effect. Every writer has, at one time or another, misspelled a word or used a word the wrong way. If it comes out funny, it is called a malapropism, named for Mrs. Malaprop, a character noted for her funny misuse of words in a comedy titled “The Rivals” written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775.

Yes, you read that right. We writers have been misusing words for centuries – and actually, longer than poor Mrs. Malaprop. In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the character of Dogberry commits malapropisms long before Mrs. Malaprop arrived on the scene.

So what is a malapropism? It is simply the misuse of one word for another in a comical manner, such as “I took him for granite.” (instead of “granted”) We are all guilty of errors of this type – but not all are malapropisms. Substituting “their” for “they’re” or “there” is not a malapropism – it’s just sloppy writing. When used correctly, as Shakespeare and Sheridan did, malapropisms can define an eccentric character or lead to comedic misunderstandings between characters.

PhD Language

He contemplated the miniscule chamber, its prosaic tile at odds with the neo-modernistic appurtenances.

Excuse me? This is an example of PhD language. Words that are too full of themselves or using language that sends the reader running for the dictionary. I honestly had a writer once who used words like this in the novel he was writing. The above sentence is a description of a bathroom in an old farmhouse. Although I consider myself well-read and fairly familiar with the English language, I had trouble getting through his story.

If your reader has to stop to figure out what you’re saying, you’ve lost him or her. Note, though, that the use of simple words does not mean dull or uninteresting. For instance: walk is dull; stroll is simple, but descriptive and interesting; perambulate is verbose. Consider the following examples:

Dull                                         Interesting                   Over the top

Cart                                         carriage                                    conveyance

Wordy                                      glib                                          loquacious

musical                                    harmonious                           euphonious

name                                        moniker                                   sobriquet

Hopefully, you see the pattern here. Use colorful, interesting language, but don’t require your reader to run to the dictionary every other sentence.

Contract language is another example of writing that doesn’t belong in a novel – unless you’re writing about a lawyer reading a contract. If you are, let me just say one word – Boring.

So what is contract language? We’ve all seen it and, most likely, skipped over it. It’s the stuff they bury in the fine print. Consider the following:

Was in charge of = oversaw

At the present time, or, At this point in time = now

In the event that = if

Considering the fact that = considering (change any phrase containing “the fact that” such as “due to the fact that”, on the grounds that, concerning the fact that, etc.)

The reason why = because

Circled around = circled

As to whether = whether

He is a man who = He

end result = result

final completion = completion or final, not both

If you find any of the above phrases or similar ones in your writing, think about changing them – unless you’re writing a legal brief, in which case, be brief. Please.



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