Words That Can Get Us In Trouble (In the Age of Spell Check)

This week, I’m revisiting an issue I covered a while back. I’m mentioning it again because it seems to come up more often than you would think.

As most of us know, spell check can’t read minds. We’ve probably all ran into situations where we’ve butchered the spelling of a word and spell check has suggested a word that is not the word you mean to include. If you are tired or distracted enough, you might just accept the suggestion and move on. There isn’t much you can do about this when it happens other than catching it on a later read through or hoping your editor catches such glitches.

This post is not about that sort of spell check issue, but a much more insidious creature. I give you the bane of spell checkers everywhere … the homonym. Actually, to be more technically accurate, what we’re really talking about are homophones, but they’re are often referred to as homonyms. Confused yet? No worries. Let’s get down to it.

Here’s a quick overview.

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings: sew, so, sow for, fore, four

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations: bow (archery), bow (forward part of a ship)

Finally, homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation AND the same spelling but have different meanings: bat or can

The most common problem that I see associated with these words shows up in the form of homophones, and one of the most common ones that I see is heal vs. heel.

There you are just typing along, and before you know it, your character is walking into a room in a pair of stiletto high heals. Whoops!

And of course, spell check will glide right by this one without so much as a backward glance. As I mentioned above, there’s really not much that can be done about this other than more pairs of eyes and an editor.

The truth is that these things are just going to happen sometimes. I guess the purpose of this post is that of a little consciousness raising. Hopefully, if there is a little voice in the back of your head, it will be slightly less likely to happen.

How about you, WG2E peeps? Can you relate? Do you have any stories?

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  1. I can’t think of any stories off-hand, but I can definitely relate.

  2. JamieSalisbury (@JamieRSalisbury) says:

    I too can relate. Don’t have any stories, but have caught things on a second read through – the one I do AFTER using spell check. . .

  3. The sun’s raise; warm sunny beech; pouring over the file; laid on the alter; just to name a few I found with Ginger software – so chagrined these were in books I’ve published! Getting the last book gingered today!

    I also called them homonyms instead of homophones – thanks for the info!

  4. I see the heel/heal all the time. Thanks for the explanation on the names and definitions.

  5. Dawn Turner says:

    My favorite one to swap while typing away is wretch instead of retch. Week/weak can also catch me at times. Thankfully, I know those are issues so I’ve customized Smart Edit to check for them. I’m sure as I fix those more will sneak up on me. *G*

  6. Joe Bruno says:

    I have problems all the time with trail/trial. Writing about mobsters, I almost always mean trial, but trail shows up too many times. So before I sent my book to an editor, I do a “seach all” and” replace” – trail with trial.

    Now if the cops are on the trail of someone – I’m screwed.

  7. Doug Welch says:

    My bane is ‘though”, thought, and through. Also a plain capital “I” when I meant “In” or “Is”.

  8. I seem to always catch my cp with ‘to and too.’ Also, ‘lose’ and ‘loose’ and ‘past’ and ‘passed.’ Sigh. So much to trip us up. Good article.

  9. James F. Brown says:

    One of my big bete noires is:

    PHASE vs. FAZE

    It’s astonishing how many so-called literate writers confuse the former with the latter, as in “that doesn’t phase me at all”.


  10. Diana Layne says:

    reign vs. rein

    • SK Holmesley says:

      Thank you. I had written a paragraph this morning and had the term “free rein”, but with the other one. I thought at the time, somethings wrong with that, but forgot to go back to check after I finished the entire paragraph. The spell checker would never have caught that one. Thank you. :-)

    • Nice!

  11. A reader notified me that my hero had a taught stomach instead of taut. 4 times! LOL It has since been corrected.

  12. Peak vs. peek is another. And I feel total despair over “advise/advice”. With an “s” it’s a verb. With a “c” it’s a noun. But nobody seems to know that anymore–or care. I suppose I have to let it go…

  13. Gilly Fraser says:

    Not in a book – but as a radio journalist I sent through a sports-preview script for the presenter which said a game’s ‘lick-off’ was at 2pm in stead of ‘kick-off’. The presenter had an enormous attack of giggles!

  14. Gail Kushner says:

    The one that I still can’t figure out is lay vs. lie vs. laid. I keep checking grammar references, but I don’t know if I use them correctly or not. I guess I’ll lie down and think about this. Or, perhaps, I’ll lay myself down for a while . . .

    • Hi, Gail.

      I think I feel a post coming on about that one.

      • Deborah Jay says:

        Please! That’s the one I can’t ever decide on – a post will be most welcome.

        I found one of my characters ‘peaking’ yesterday, instead of ‘peeking’ – oops!

        But for me, the one I find most often in published books that drives me nuts is ‘reign’ instead of ‘rein’.

        You can rein somebody in – a queen reigns.

        As a professional horse rider, the use of reins is on my mind much of the time… ;)

  15. SK Holmesley says:

    weather, whether, wether