We Break Four Homophones


The Force is strong in my household. My four-year-old son is obsessed with Star Wars, and it’s the lens we see the world through these days. One recent afternoon, my youngling and I were talking about Super Battle Droids.

“Mama, how can Super Battle Droids not break when they’re pew-pewed at?”

“They must be made of something sturdy. A strong metal, like steel maybe,” I suggested.

My young Padawan gave a long pause, one of those quiet moments where you can see the wheels working, and you know something good is going to come next.

“Mama, what is steel then? I thought Darth Vader was mad at Princess Leia because she stealed the Death Star plans? How can a Battle Droid be steal?”

And for the umpteenth time in my parenting journey—and in my editing career—I appreciated how tricky the English language can be.

Proper conjugation aside, my kiddo was struggling with something writers, editors, and grown-ups of all kinds—including US presidents—wrestle with no matter how long you’ve practiced English: the dreaded homophone.

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. These tricky words are everywhere, and they can slip past even the most eagle-eyed editor and the most proficient wordsmith. A billboard proclaims, “We bye used cars!” A menu suggests pairing fish with “roasted leaks in a garlic butter sauce.” A character in a novel I recently read broke his “humorous.”

There are so many innovative and wonderful ways that we confuse words, but there are some standard homophone errors we see often in manuscripts.

1.     it’s/its

  • it’s is a contraction of it isnot an apostrophe s to indicate a possessive ← Pro tip: I still read it’s aloud as it is when I’m editing to make sure I’ve got this one right.
  • its without the apostrophe indicates ownership
The Padawan loved its class. It’s about grammar, taught by Yoda. The Padawan’s skills are almost complete.

2.     there/their/they’re

  • there is a place
  • their indicates they are in possession of something
  • they’re is a contraction for they are
They’re on Hoth. Their base is there.

3.     who’s/whose

  • who’s is a contraction of who is, not an apostrophe s to indicate possession
  • whose indicates possession
He’s the droid who’s going to the master whose ship is being repaired.

4.     pedal/peddle/petal

  • pedal is what you do to a bike, or what you put your foot on in the car
  • peddle means to sell your wares
  • petal is on a flower
(And here’s where I’m out of Star Wars examples.) He pedaled to the market to peddle his blooms with bright-orange petals.

5.     cannon/canon

  • cannon is something you fire during a battle
  • canon has a few meanings, among them dogma, an accepted group of works, or an accepted principle
Coconut Cannon Blast is an obvious addition to the canon of great tropical thrillers.

6.     cavalry/Calvary (OK, maybe not totally technically a homophone, but still.)

  • cavalry is a horseback unit of troops
  • Calvary is a place in the bible (not to be confused with Calgary, which I’ve seen done not once but twice in my editing career)
Call the cavalry! We’ve got to get forces to Calvary.

7.     complement/compliment

  • compliment is something nice someone says about you, or the act of doing so
  • complement is something that completes or goes well with something else, or the act of doing so
I complimented her on the hat, which complemented her shoes so well.

8.     complimentary/complementary

  • complimentary is something that’s praising
  • complementary is how to describe two things that go together
The judges on Project Runway were complimentary of her use of complementary colors.

9.     discrete/discreet

PSA / pro tip: This is on nearly every editing test, and when it appears in books, it’s nearly always wrong. Look. It. Up. Every. Time.
  • discrete means separate and distinct
  • discreet means prudent, unpretentious, or unnoticeable
They would split up and go to discrete locations, but they would go discreetly so the bounty hunters wouldn’t be able to follow them.

10.  defuse/diffuse

  • defuse is something you do to a tense situation
  • diffuse means to scatter
Watching the juice concentrate diffuse in the water seemed to defuse the tensions.

Now that you know some common problematic pairs—and how tricky they are—here are some tips for ridding your writing of them.

  1. Read aloud. Like I mentioned in the first tip above, sometimes you just need to hear the difference. When editing, I will literally say “who is” when I come across who’s in text, or exaggeratedly say “deeeee-fuze” if I come across defuse so I can be sure the right term wasn’t diffuse.
  2. Look it up. Yes, if a word you type or read sounds like another, stop for the few seconds it takes to plug the word into M-W.com and check the definition. You won’t regret it.
  3. Know thine enemy. All of the words above appear regularly in manuscripts. Use MS Word’s “Find” function to seek out and destroy these foes. You can find lots of great lists of commonly confused homophones and nearly right words online; randomly search for them throughout your manuscript. Something will turn up, I promise.
  4. Try tricks for remembering the tricksters. Fun little mnemonic devices can help you remember correct spelling. For example, something complementary can complete. Size EE is shoe size, and shoes cover your heels, not your heals (h/t to @editormark on Twitter for this one).
  5. Read only for language. Try doing a pass of the manuscript focused solely on each word. When you’re reading holistically, it’s easy to catch the problem in a paragraph and miss the typo in line.
  6. Barter beer for a close read. A second—and third, and fourth, and fifth—set of eyes never, ever hurts.

Homophones are everywhere. But don’t let anger and fear cloud your reading; have fun hunting these wonderful little quirks of the English language. And may the Force be with you!