I think it’s safe to say that writers have one thing in common: we have all misspelled a word or two in our lives. One of the most annoying spelling errors is caused by a simple confusion with homophones, or words that sound alike but have different meanings. For most writers, homophones are the number 1 reason for misspellings. When we write, we rely on memory and auditory skills and don’t necessarily pause to spell out words in our heads. That’s why we might type their when we mean there, or tied for tide. Also, beware Spellcheck programs as they can sometimes automatically insert the wrong homophone. Apparently, nothing is perfect.
Email is fertile ground for these misspellings, especially if you’re like most and respond quickly, and sometimes, too quickly. For example, here’s one that happened today. I requested something from a colleague and received this speedy reply: “I’d be happy too.” Despite this person’s efficiency and enthusiasm, the error of using “too” rather than “to” becomes a glaring blemish. Readers can become fixated on these tiny errors, and unfortunately judge others’ writing by its attention to correctness rather than for the content or message.
One thing we know is that homophones can wreak havoc on your writing. We’re bound to make these mistakes, especially when we’re writing quickly. Knowing this, then, it makes sense to have your eye alerted to the propensity of these errors. For example, one of the most frequently made errors pertains to just three letters: i, t, and s. Ask yourself if you’re using the possessive (its) or the contraction for it is (it’s). Other common homophones to look out for are: their, there, and they’re; who’s & whose; where & wear; a lot & allot; fare & fair; deer & dear; accept & except. For more, check out our free resource on Homophones.
So before you click send in an email, remember those pesky homophones. Look for them and double-check for accuracy. You want your reader to be impressed with your message, not catch a minor error.
By Anne Maxham, Ph.D.