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Homophones: How do they work?

Part of a series of grammar posts I'm writing for my CPs.

Homophones are words that sound similar but have different meanings, like BEAR (n: fierce quadruped) and BARE (adj: naked). They are a problem for many people, and not just because they screw up phonetics.

Why Homophones Screw With Your Head

  • If you're an auditory reader/writer, meaning you hear the words in your head while writing or reading, the different spellings are all but indistinguishable to you. (The bastards.)
  • Speech-to-text software, like Dragon Naturally Speaking or Siri, can't tell the different between homonyms. It tries to guess based on context, but... well.
  • Human short-term memory groups words by their sound, not by their meaning. So if you've been using more than one homonym, your brain becomes likely to mix them up after a couple of uses.
  • For the same reason, you're also more likely to make a homophone error when typing quickly for casual things like tweets. Which leads us to:
  • On the internet, commonly misused homophones gain power through social media. The more often you see PEAK misused as PEEK, the more likely you are to make that same mistake yourself.

A Parade Of Homophones

Here follows a list of the most common homophones I see misused.

Common homophones, their meanings, and examples:

homophone Meaning Examples
BAREAdjective: naked, uncovered
Verb: to uncover.
The sunbather's bare skin gleamed with tanning oil.
The whistle-blower laid bare all her employer's sins.
The wolf bared its teeth in a snarl.
BEARNoun: Big furry animal
Verb: to carry, to endure
Bears love honey.
The favored concubine has borne many children for the king.
I bore the burden for as long as I could.
- Note the odd spelling of the past and perfect tenses!
FLAIR Noun: style, drama, talent She has a flair for the dramatic.
My boss insists waiters wear 17 "pieces of flair".
This sparkly scarf adds flair to my outfit.
FLARE Noun: An increase
Verb: To increase
(In both cases, usually refers to brightness, intensity, or width)
A match flared in the darkness.
Her temper flared and she started shouting.
My bell-bottom pants have a wide flare at the ankle.
HEALVerb: To cure a wound or ailment The bruise will heal in a few days.
Our D&D party needs a healer.
HEEL Noun: The back of your foot That's my Achilles heel.
His heels hurt from standing up all day.
PALATENoun: the roof of your mouth; also, your personal tastes The baby was born with a cleft palate.
Some people find bitter foods pleasing to their palates.
PALLET Noun: Unit used for shipping large volumes, for convenient lifting via forklift My company ordered three pallets of lumber.
The warehouse had pallets stacked to the ceiling.
PALETTE Noun: Collection of colors, traditionally an artist's paints Photoshop can save a custom color palette.
The oil painter held her palette in her left hand.
PEAK Noun: highest point
Verb: to reach its highest point
I peaked in high school, it's all been downhill from there.
The peak of Mount Everest is the highest point in the world.
IMPORTANT NOTE: "Peaked" (but not "peak") can also be an adjective, meaning "pale or wan". It is pronounced differently (two syllables), however, so it's not a true homonym.
PEEKVerb: to peer out from behind something or take a quick look The sun peeked above the horizon.
I took a peek at the report before I handed it to my boss.
PIQUEVerb: to stimulate, used for appetite or interest
Noun: anger, annoyance, irritation
The demonstration piqued my interest.
He left in a fit of pique, slamming the door behind him.
VICIOUS Adjective: Fierce, cruel, brutal A vicious animal.
The murderer left vicious slashes in the victim's face.
VISCOUSAdjective: Goopy, syrupy, thick The fuel gel was too viscous to flow through the narrow tube.
My gravy came out way too viscous.

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