Is it embarrassment or embarassment or embarrasment? Hell, let the spelling checker figure it out. That’s what most people (including me) would do.
But what about words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things? Those words, friends, are homonyms and your spelling checker isn’t going to flag them if you spell them correctly but misuse them.
I wouldn’t expect ordinary folks to spot “gait” and “gate,” when they’re using a spelling checker, but on the other hand, I would expect professionals to catch something like that. Sadly, I see those kinds of mix ups all the time on graphics put up by my local TV stations, online and in many print publications. Sometimes people aren’t paying attention. Sometimes they just don’t know.
What follows is my list of the 21 most common homonym hang-ups in no particular order:
1. Complement and compliment. You see this one mixed up allot, er, I mean a lot. Complement means to complete or improve, as in, “That whip complements your dominatrix outfit.” Compliment is a well-meaning remark, as in, “Darling, you look smashing in that G string.”
2, Your and you’re. This is another mix up you often see, although I suspect it has more to do with carelessness than anything else. Your is possessive, as in, “I believe this is your goat.” You’re is a contraction of you are, as in, “You’re a space donkey.”
3. Capitol and capital. Capitol is the building where politicians debate things like bailouts and wars. Capital is a city. Capital can also be an adjective and mean “terrific” or “punishable by death,” but there’s no point in going into that right now.
4. Its and it’s. Some spelling checkers will flag this one. Its is possessive, as in, “The nightclub’s most stunning feature is its disco ball.” It’s is the contraction of it is, as in, “It’s hard to get my old Ford Woodie running on cold mornings.”
5. Brake and break. I don’t know how these two get mixed up, but I see it all the time. A brake stops your car. A break in your arm hurts like hell.
6. Altogether and all together. Altogether means entirely, as in “My girlfriend’s parents do not altogether approve of my boozing.” All together means that everyone or thing is in one place, as in, “We were all together at our nudist camp to celebrate the summer solstice.”
7. Principal and principle. A principal is the guy who the teacher sends you to see when you misbehave. Principle is a code of conduct, fact or law. “I have no principles so I stole a gun from the principal’s desk even though I understand the principles of right and wrong.”
8. Their, there and they’re. This is another mix up that probably has more to do with carelessness than dopiness. Their is possessive. There is a place. They’re is a contraction of they are. “Their clothes are loose.” “Over there they don’t wear underpants.” “They’re a bunch of loose women.”
9. Stationary and stationery. This one often trips up the unwary. Stationary means to stay in one place. Stationery is fancy writing paper (including the electronic kind).
10. Desert and dessert. If you leave your military post in Iraq to run off with a camel herder, there’s a good chance you deserted and rode off into the desert. If you decide to go to the mess hall and polish off something yummy after dinner, then it’s a dessert.
11. Affect and effect. Affect means to influence or alter. It’s always a verb. Effect can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means the result of an action. As a verb, it means to accomplish or cause.
12. Rein, reign, rain. All three of these can be verbs or nouns. As nouns: A rein is a leather strap you use to control a horse. Reign is the period during which kings and queens lord over their subjects. Rain is something you should have enough sense to get out of. As verbs: Rein means to control a horse. Reign means to be the boss of everyone. Rain means put a damper on a parade.
13. Canon and cannon. I can’t think of the last time I used canon, which is a code of good conduct. As an Army brat growing up on bases in Europe, I heard cannon blasts all the time.
14. Phase and faze. A phase, which can be a noun or verb, usually means a period of change, like when you go from having a flat chest to having boobs. Faze, on the other hand, means to bother or perturb. Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Star Trek crew used phasers, which really have nothing to do with phase or faze.
15. Prey and pray. If you stalk, kill and eat a pony, you prey on it. If a kangaroo, stalks, kills and eats you, then you’re the prey. You might want to pray the zoo keeps its vicious kangaroo locked up..
16. Grey and gray. If you’re a Brit, you use grey. If you’re an American, you use gray. I don’t think anyone cares either way.
17. Cite, sight, site. If you mess these up, it’s probably because you aren’t paying attention.
18. Discreet and discrete. If you ask me to keep your affair on the down low, then you want me to be discreet. Some people might say, “I was walking down discreet,” but I don’t know them. Discrete is something that isn’t attached to anything. It’s separate, in other words.
19. Hoard and horde. If you’re on Survivor, you might hoard food by hiding it. If your rivals find your hoard, they’ll eat it and kick your ass off the island. Guys who ride around on horses, shoot arrows at people and pillage villages, make up a horde. It’s like a posse with Attila the Hun as the leader.
20. Bait and bate. This one gets mixed up a lot. If I wanted to catch a sneak-thieving CEO from a Wall Street mortgage company, I’d tie a string to a wallet and use it as bait. If I bate, it means I’m trying to restrain myself. If you tell me you’ve been waiting for me with “baited breath,” I will think you ate the wallet I left on the sidewalk on Wall Street. If you tell me you’ve been waiting for me with “bated breath,” I must owe you money.
21. A lot and allot. This is another one I think people tend to over look, even though they’re clear on which one to use when. Just in case: A lot means many. Allot means to distribute or parcel out into shares.