Which Witch is Which?


By Clover Carroll

They’re everywhere—those pesky word pairs that sound alike but mean entirely different things, and that trip us up and make us look silly when we choose the wrong one. Homophones and their (or is it there?) kin, words that are spelled similarly but sound and mean differently, can create questions when writing. Which is the write—oops, I mean right—spelling for the current context? I’m sure other languages have similar conundrums, but these close lexical cousins must surely drive English language-learners crazy. It is important to choose the correct member of the pair in order to say what you mean and not confuse your reader. Let’s see if we can sort out some of these confusing sets of doppelgangers.

We are all familiar with the straight homophones: words that sound exactly alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings, such as might and mite. Homonyms, by contrast, are words that are spelled and sound the same, but can have different meanings—as in left turn and left behind. But these don’t cause us the same kind of spelling problems that homophones do, so let’s stick with the troublemakers. ‘If you want a piece of cake, speak now or forever hold your peace.’ ‘The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website tells me that a bald eagle would be an unusual sight in Charlottesville, so if I wrote about such a sighting I would want to cite that source in my bibliography.’ ‘My heart grows sore when I hear of this regal bird being hunted as it soars over mountains and plains.’ ‘Now I think I’ll go pour myself a cup of hot cocoa while I pore over the storm-tracking maps.’ I had to double-check this last one myself in the Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com), which gives two definitions of pore: an opening in the skin, or to examine carefully and closely.

More thorny are the word pairs that sound slightly different, but look enough alike that it is difficult to keep the meanings straight. The most common confusion of this kind is between effect (result) and affect (have an effect on). It helps me to remember that in almost all cases, effect is a noun and affect is a verb (with a few rare exceptions), but an easy rule of the thumb is that if the word follows “the,” you should choose effect. ‘The effect of sticks and stones may be a few bruises, but cruel words will not affect me.’ ‘We hope that the effects of Hurricane Sandy will not be so severe as to affect the election.’

Figuring out when to use principal (primary) and principle (an axiom or rule) is not so straightforward, since both may be used as nouns—the principal of our school maintains high principles of conduct, for example. One mnemonic to help students remember this difference is that “the principal is your pal” (grammar.quickanddirtytips.com). But for the most part, principal is used as an adjective: ‘the principal reason for concern is that high winds often cause power outages.’ ‘One of the emergency personnel’s guiding principles is never to touch a downed power line.’

An even tougher example of this close-but-no-cigar category is when to choose between compliment and complement. Just remember that a compliment is a flattering observation, such as ‘that color looks really good on you.’ It means the same thing whether used as a noun or a verb; ‘she complimented me on my outfit.’ The word complement is a rarer bird, meaning to go along with well, to match, or to complete—as in complementary colors. ‘That gold scarf will complement your blue suit perfectly,’ or ‘the bland rice will complement the spicy curry to create a balance of tastes.’ Since compliment is so much more commonly used, if in doubt, choose this spelling.

Less tricky are the sound-alikes illusion and allusion, which should be easy to distinguish because they have such different meanings. An illusion is a dream, a mirage, a conviction that is held in error: ‘The idea that a Fountain of Youth exists is pure illusion.’ Much rarer is the literary allusion, in which an author refers to another work through the brief mention of a word or idea in order to suggest its mood or themes. The title of the novel The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, for example, is an allusion to a notable soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Life’s but a walking shadow… it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” As with compliment and complement, the word illusion is used so much more frequently that you are fairly safe choosing the “i” spelling most of the time.

We cannot end without discussing the most troublesome and potentially embarrassing of all the sound-alikes: words that are both spelled and pronounced differently, but are frequently confused in writing. Did Claudius Crozet breath his last, or breathe his last on Jan. 29, 1864? Was he an immigrant or an emigrant from France to the United States? And did Crozet loose or lose the support of canal owners when he advocated for railroads?

Breath is a noun that is pronounced with a soft, unvoiced th, while breathe is a verb that uses a hard, voiced th (the addition of the final e is what changes this pronunciation, as in cloth and clothe, or lath and lathe). ‘When I breathe deeply, my breaths are longer and more relaxed.’ One easy way to remember this one is to recall the well-known hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God.”

Whether Crozet was an emigrant, meaning someone who has left his native country, or an immigrant—someone who has come to a new country, is mainly a matter of perspective. Both of these words refer to the act of migration —moving from one country or region to another—but the prefix determines the meaning. Im- means coming in, whereas em- refers to going out. So an immigrant is one who enters and settles in a new country, while an emigrant, is one who leaves his/her native country to settle in another. Therefore, the French would view Crozet as an emigrant because he migrated abroad, while we in the U.S. view him as an immigrant who came here to pursue a new life.

Finally, the single most annoying word mix-up is to substitute loose, an adjective meaning not tight, for lose, a verb meaning to misplace. Like breath and breathe, loose uses a soft s, while lose is pronounced with a voiced s. But unlike the former, these two words are completely unrelated in meaning. Crozet did not loose the support of canal owners, but he did lose it. If you have a hole in your pocket full of loose change, you may lose some money. As we lose our grip on grammar, you may be sure that many of my screws will become loose!