- "Bate" is an archaic word that means to restrain or lessen the intensity of. "Bait" means to lure or hook. Where we get it wrong is when we say "with baited breath" when we really mean "with bated breath".
- These tend to confuse us. "Borne" does not refer to birth, but rather means to be carried or endured. So to say "his ideas were borne out" is correct. An outbreak is food-borne. "Born" does refer to birth and means arising of or resulting from. So, correct would be to say "his bad mood was born of a poor sleep" or “He is Canadian-born”.
- We don't get these wrong when we use them as nouns, but we do as verbs. "Bus" is a form a transport, "to buss" means to kiss. It is incorrect to say "the students were bussed to the school."
- A cannon is a large weapon that fires heavy projectiles. A canon is a code of laws, an established principle, a group of literary works etc.
- "Canvas" is always a noun and means a heavy, coarse fabric used for tents and sails, or a piece of such fabric on which a painting is made, or a background against which events unfold. "Canvass" is normally used as a verb and means to examine or discuss, go through an area to solicit votes or opinions, or conduct a survey.
- "Chord" is a musical term usually, although it can be used metaphorically, whereas a "cord" refers to a string, rope, electrical cable or a measure of wood. So we say "the spinal cord" and "his speech struck a chord with voters".
- "Coiffed" generally refers to hair that is styled in an attractive or neat way; "quaffed" refers to having heartily drank a beverage, usually alcoholic.
- This set we tend to get confused a lot, particularly because they have a common root. To complement is to complete something, supplement it, or bring it to perfection. Your shoes might complement your outfit. "Complement" as a noun can also mean a full crew of personnel. To compliment is to give praise. "Complimentary" can also mean given for free or as a courtesy.
- "Council" is always a noun. It means an assembly of people brought together for discussion or deliberation. That's why call it city council. "Counsel" refers to the act of exchanging ideas or giving advice. That's why someone who helps you make career choices is a counsellor.
- Usage of these words varies, with British, Canadian and American convention sometimes differing. For our purposes, consider the term "dependent" always as an adjective meaning contingent on another, as in financially dependent, and the term "dependant" as the noun, as in someone who relies on another.
- To defuse something is to make a threatening or dangerous situation safer. For example, you might defuse a violent argument by calming the people involved, or you might literally defuse a ticking time bomb. “Diffuse” works as both a verb and an adjective. To diffuse something is to disperse it or spread it out. When something is widely spread out, it is diffuse. Usually, however, when you want a verb, you go with "defuse" and when you want an adjective, you go with "diffuse".
- "Dual" is an adjective that means double or composed of two usually complementary parts, with the root of the word meaning "two". A duel is a combat between two people, whose root word means "war".
- Although, like others on this list, they are not true homophones, these words are included, as is the next set below, because they create confusion. "Elicit" is a verb meaning to give rise to or evoke. "Illicit" is an adjective meaning illegal or not approved by custom.
- We get this wrong a lot. To immigrate is to settle in a new country or region. To emigrate is to leave a native country or region to settle elsewhere. They are similar but easy to remember if one thinks of immigrating as arriving, and emigrating as leaving. Therefore, Martina emigrated from Czechoslovakia before immigrating to Canada.
- “Ensure” means to make sure or be certain. “Insure” refers specifically for providing insurance for. (On a further note, “assure” - which means to inform positively or cause to be sure - no longer lives on to mean to insure, although “assurance” lives on in some company names).
- It's rare for either of these two words to appear in news copy, but they're included because of a recent correction over the mistaking of the two, which unfortunately elicited many reader responses. Faun is a mythical, rustic, rural god represented as a man with goat ears, horns, tail and legs. A fawn is a young deer. As a verb, "fawn", usually with the word "over", means to flatter or show obsequious attention.
- "Faze" means to disrupt the composure of. If you are not bothered by something, you are unfazed. "Phase" as a noun means a stage and as a verb means to plan or carry out systematically - and is usually followed by "in" or "out". To implement a plan little by little, you phase it in.
- “Flare”, which can be used as a noun or a verb (the verb form usually being followed by “up”), usually has to do with flame or a burst, and can sometimes be used metaphorically, as in the phrase “tempers flare”. Its other, unrelated sense, means a spreading shape, as in the phrase “flared nostrils”. “Flair” means either elegance or style or a natural talent or aptitude. It’s only a noun. Thus, when we come up with an A1 lineup for the paper, we hopefully show flair in coming up with the day’s flare.
- “Grisly” means gruesome or horrifying. (Note, when meat has too much cartilage, it’s gristly, not grisly). “Grizzly” relates to the large brown bear. (Note, when referring to greying, scruffy men, for instance, the term “grizzled” should be used.)
- “Hail” is a noun and verb that refers to precipitation in the form of spherical pellets of ice. It is also a verb whose meaning is to salute or greet, or call out in order to catch the attention of (as in “he hailed a taxi”), or come or originate (usually with “from” as in “she hailed from the Prairies”). “Hale” usually means free from infirmity or illness, as in “hale and hearty”, but also has the rarer verb sense — to compel to go (usually to court).
- These words are generally not confused but where we run into trouble is with the term “harebrained”, which means flighty or reckless and refers to the jumpiness of the rabbit-like animal from which the term stems.
- “Horde” is a noun that means a large crowd or mob, usually of people. “Hoard” can be either a noun meaning an accumulated store or cache, or a verb meaning to accumulate a hoard. If you have a hoard of something, a horde of people might try to take it from you.
- “Its”, without an apostrophe, is the possessive of the pronoun “it” and causes confusion because many other possessives have apostrophes (but easier to keep straight if you think of the word as belonging to the category of possessive personal pronouns such as “ours” and “hers”, which also don’t have apostrophes) . “It’s”, with an apostrophe, is a contraction of “it is” or “it has” (although please undo the contraction if you mean “it has”). Most of us don’t get these wrong in our minds, but autocorrects and lack of proofing can let these incorrectly sneak into our content.
- The verb “lead” makes “led” in its past-tense and past-participle forms and writers often mistakenly use “lead” in these instances, perhaps due to erroneous analogy with the past forms of the verb “read”. “Lead” is the correct spelling for the malleable, bluish-grey element used in pipes and bullets.
- “Lightening” is a present participle of the verb “lighten”, meaning to make light or lighter. “Lightning” refers to the electric discharge in the atmosphere during thunderstorms.
- Again, not true homophones, but words that are nonetheless frequently confused. “Loath” is an adjective meaning reluctant or unwilling. Loathe is a verb meaning to hate or detest.
- “Marquee” refers to the canopy over a building’s entrance and, more usually, a brightly lit sign over the entrance to a theatre, for example, listing the names of featured performers. Normally, the word is used as an adjective referring to something famous or popular enough to be listed on a marquee, as in “a marquee player”. “Marquis” is a European nobleman ranking between a duke and a count.
- Peak means a maximum, to achieve a maximum, and to bring to a maximum. Its homophone “pique”, which is almost exclusively used in the phrase “pique one's interest”, means to provoke or arouse, or to provoke resentment or indignation. It also has a noun sense — namely, a feeling of resentment or indignation resulting from wounded pride. A third homophone, “peek”, means to glance quickly, to look furtively, or a quick or furtive look.
- “Pedal” is noun and verb that always relates to bicycles, pianos, organs, boats, looms, sewing machines, and other machines with foot-operated components. “Peddle” is a verb meaning to sell or to travel about selling goods.
- “Plane” and “plain” are distinct in most of their definitions, but almost converge where “plain” means an extensive, level, mostly treeless area of land and plane means a flat, level surface. But the distinction is a plain is a land formation, while a plane is abstract, mainly appearing in mathematics, engineering, and carpentry. “Plane” most often refers to an airplane, levels of achievement (eg. a higher plane) or a flat tool used to smooth surfaces. “Plain” also functions as an adjective meaning evident, or free from adornment or obstruction.
- These words are often confused because both have similar origins, meaning “first”. “Premier” as an adjective means first in status and, as a noun, means the head of a parliamentary government. “Premiere”, which is a noun and a verb, refers to the first public performance or showing of something, such as a movie or a play.
- “Principal” as an adjective means first or highest in importance or rank, and as a noun refers to one who holds a presiding position or rank, or capital or property before interest. “Principle” is always a noun and means a basic truth, law, assumption, rule or moral guideline. An example of each in a sentence would be: The principal leader of a high school is its principal, who should lead by example and be a person of principle.
- Not technically homophones, these words nonetheless get confused a lot. “Precede” means to go before, to be in front of, or to preface, whereas “proceed” means to go forward, to continue, or to carry on. Note that our current style book considers “proceed” to be “a pretentious substitute for ‘walk’, ‘go’, ‘ride’ etc. and is objectionable because it is a general word supplanting a more descriptive specific one.”
- Because wrack is rare and rack has many definitions, these homophones are easily confused.
Generally speaking, a rack is a framework (such as a hat rack) and, when used as a verb, “rack” means to trouble, torture or destroy (therefore, one racks one’s brains or is racked with pain). “Wrack” is used only as a noun and refers to either seaweed or wreckage, and is usually used when referring to the idiom “wrack and ruin”. Where we run into the most trouble is with the use of nerve-wracking, which has become commonplace, but we should use nerve-racking instead.
- We generally get these words right, using “rapped” when we mean knocked or punished, and “wrapped” when we mean enveloped or enfolded. “Rapt” is an adjective meaning deeply engrossed or deeply moved, as in “listen with rapt attention”.
- These words are a very frequent source of error. “Reign” as a noun and verb refers to rule, whereas “rein” means to curb. Thus you rein in unruly behavior, or else it will reign in the classroom. Where some confusion occurs is in the expression “free rein” – which is an allusion to giving a horse more freedom in horseback riding, its original form. But, because “free reign” seems to make sense (ie. Translating to free exercise of power), it is often used as a substitute but is considered incorrect and should not be used.
- “Stationary”, with an “a”, is an adjective only. It means not moving or not capable of being moved, as in a stationary bike. “Stationery”, with an “e”, is a noun only and refers to writing paper and envelopes.
- These are rarely confused at the Globe when people take a moment to think about which term they want and wrong usages are likely most attributable to typos, but it’s important to question every there/their/they’re we see in copy. “There” of course refers to place, “their” is a possessive meaning belonging to them, and “they’re” is the contraction of “they are”.
- “Waiver” is a noun with several meanings, including the intentional relinquishment of a right or privilege, a dispensation, and a deferment. In most cases, the one who relinquishes a right or privilege gives the waiver, while the one who benefits from the relinquishment receives the waiver. To waive is to give up or forgo. “Waver” is a verb meaning to move unsteadily back and forth, to vacillate, or, in the case of a light, to flicker.
- Yoke and yolk aren’t exactly homophones, but they are sometimes confused due to their closeness in sound. “Yoke” refers to the crossbar that encircles the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals. It’s usually used metaphorically, often as part of the phrases “throw off the yoke” and “under the yoke”. Yolk is the yellow portion of an egg.