Don’t get your homophones in a twist

Inspired by this card, which I’ve both bought and had bought for me, in this blog post I thought I’d look at homophones. Nothing to do with prehistoric man, these are words that sound the same but mean different things*. Like bare and bear, cereal and serial, etc.

I’ll endeavour not to insult anyone’s intelligence with the basics like your/you’re here. But I will mention a few I’ve come across in my proofreading career that seem to trip up even the most diligent of writers.

Practice and practise

‘Practise’ with an ‘s’ is a verb, and with a ‘c’ is a noun. So a doctor practises medicine, but they do it at their practice. The same goes for ‘license’ and ‘licence’ (two for the price of one – don’t say I never give you anything). So James Bond has a licence to kill, but he’s licensed to do it. It might help to think of it like ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ which are the same (three for one! I‘m really spoiling you now), unless you get confused by them too, in which case don’t think of it like that and ask Google.

Oh, and if you’re in America you can ignore everything I just said about practice and licence – our transatlantic cousins only use the ‘s’ for these, regardless of whether they’re verbing or nouning. Those crazy cats.

Complimentary and complementary

Compliment with an ‘i’ has two meanings:

  • someone’s saying nice things about you (lucky you), or
  • something’s free (also lucky you).

The other type, complement, is when you’re saying that something goes well with something else. Like this sauce complements this food (as you’d never say). Think of it like one thing ‘completing’ something else if that helps. (Or ask Google again.)

(You also use the second spelling if you’re talking about the number of people in a group e.g. a ship's complement. Although I can’t see that coming up very often unless you’re Captain Phillips.)

Stationary and stationery

SIGH. This one drives me a bit nuts. Like this annoyingly inconsistent tweet (names have been redacted to protect the guilty):

In fact, I used to work for a writer’s agency and even they couldn’t get it right (they had a cupboard marked ‘stationary’ which, quite frankly, pretty much all cupboards are – with the arguable exception of the wardrobe that sometimes leads to Narnia). Thankfully this one’s super simple to remember – ‘e’ is for envelope. Easy.

Dual and duel

I once sat through a presentation by an energy company where they’d used ‘duel’ instead of ‘dual’ in ‘dual fuel’. Every. Single. Time. Now even though pistols at dawn would make paying energy bills much more exciting, it’s wrong. Dual with an ‘a’ is an adjective that means something’s made up of two parts, while duel with an ‘e’ is a verb or noun for the fighty thing. And also Stephen Spielberg’s first full-length film, fact-fans. 

I'm afraid I don't have an easy-to-remember solution for this one, so it’s back to Google if you’re not sure I’m afraid.

Personally, I sometimes struggle with reign and rein. I know that Queen Elizabeth reigns but sometimes I get confused about which ones a horse wears. But maybe that’s just me.

* The word ‘homophone’ is usually used to describe words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they’re spelled. But technically speaking if they’re spelled the same then they’re also homographs (and homonyms). And if they’re spelled differently then they’re heterographs. BUT THIS WAY MADNESS LIES.