Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | November 4, 2010

Horrible Homonyms

Keep score. Don’t peek. Comment if you’d like.

Homonyms are devilish things. They are, of course, words that sound alike—and may even be spelled alike—but have totally different meanings. Homophones sound  alike but have different spellings and origins, e.g. new and knew. In this post, we’re going to lump them together under the heading, homonym.

For a writer, they can be like unseen vipers. Misuse of a homonym can ruin an otherwise literate document. A reader, noticing homonym errors, may simply stop reading. Whether in business documents, fiction or personal correspondence, a poorly chosen word—quite frequently a homonym—can be deadly.

But, a writer may say, “My word processor has an excellent built in spell-checker.” Good, but consider the following fictional story from WWI. How many homonym errors do you spot?

Treat this as a test, and then grade your score at the end of the article. Copy/paste the story and run it through your word processing program for a quick spell cheque (bet your software found that one). How many of the errors did your program find? Secret: there are a couple of extras. Give yourself double points for finding them.


Major General Wytheby-Foster stood in the lea of his squadron’s hanger, sheltering from the vicious wind.

His aid stood nervously by, watching as his superior officer checked the fabric of each wing of every biplane. The general’s meticulous inspection had the affect of making the aid remember one of his boss’ guiding principals, “Check everything twice.”

All night long, the general had poured over the plans for today’s operation. With the terrible weather, an ariel attack on the gorilla bases was a virtually a case of the old saw, “Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.” Was it reasonable to send his fliers up with the wind roaring and lightening ripping the skies? Wytheby-Foster asked himself again and again.

He wasn’t a man who was phased by criticism. He had personally led squadrons of warplanes into direct battle and, on occasion, had participated in strategic faints to draw the enemy into traps. It was his flare for unconventional, but successful tactics, which had earned him his stars. Catching the enemy unawares was his fort. Today appeared to be the right time for audacity. Weather that was barely fit for flying, augered well for surprise. If his squadrons flue today, the enemy would be totally off-guard. If he ignored the opportunity, it would be a gaff, a huge waste of a military advantage. Wytheby-Foster could not foregoe this chance.

“Brixby, form the troops.” He said to his aid. This was the queue to assemble the flyers in formation for his pre-mission address.

Once the flyers and their crews were in formation and the general had given them their orders, he told them to take care of themselves above all, he said, “I don’t want you to hesitate to bale out if necessary. You are too important to your families and the Air Service. Above all, come home. I want to complement all of you on you’re courage, but don’t sacrifice yourself on the alter of unnecessary daring-do.”

“Now go to your plains and, for your old commander, once you’ve begun your assent, give me a wave from your cockpit. Godspeed, gentlemen, we cannot afford to loose any of you,” he said as he concluded his remarks.


How many homonym errors did your computer spot? How many did you spot that the spell-checker missed?

18 – 26—Excellent-you may be an editor (or peeked)

12 – 18—Not bad, use your dictionary frequently

8 – 12—Have another proofreader look at the text before publishing

Less than 8—Some excellent homonym-finder software is available

Following are homonym mistakes from the story: the incorrect homonym is listed first; the correct word follows. Usually the words are pronounced exactly alike. A short definition follows each word. There may be even more.

Hanger – one who hangs something, (e.g. wallpaper hanger) or, coat hanger
Hangar – large building with extensive floor area, typically for aircraft

Lea – an open grassy area such as a mountain valley
Lee – shelter from the elements given by an object

Aid – help of a practical nature
Aide – an assistant to an important person

Affect – make a difference
Effect – change that is the result or consequence of an action

Principals – first in order of importance
Principles – fundamental truths serving as a foundation for belief systems

Poured – causing (a liquid) to flow in a steady stream
Pored – studiously reading or studying (plans or books)

Ariel – a gazelle found in the Middle East and North Africa
Aerial – happening in the air

Gorilla – a great ape found in Africa
Guerilla – a member of a group involved in irregular warfare

Dammed – a barrier across a lake, river or stream
Damned – cursed by others

Lightening – reducing the burden or weight
Lightning – a discharge of electricity from the sky

Phased – stages in progress or development
Fazed – disturbed or disconcerted

Faints – small or weak and dizzy, leading to unconsciousness
Feints – distracting maneuvers, especially in warfare

Flare – a pyrotechnic device, esp. used as a marker or signal
Flair – an instinctive aptitude or natural ability to do something well

Fort – fortified position or group of buildings
Forte – something at which someone excels

Auger – a tool for drilling holes
Augur – predict or portend an outcome

Flue – duct for smoke or gases
Flew – past tense of fly

Gaff – a barbed spear used to land large fish
Gaffe – a blunder, causing embarrassment

Foregoe – precede in time or place
Forgo – omit or decline to take

Cue – an act or word intended to serve as a signal
Queue – a line or sequence of people waiting their turn

Alter – to cause change in character or composititon

Altar – a table or flat-topped block, used as the focus for a religious ritual

Plains – a large geographical area with few trees
Planes – in the context of the story, aircraft

Assent – expression of approval
Ascent – rising through the air

Loose – not tight-fitting or snug
Lose – cease to have or retain

Bale – bundle of paper, hay, cotton, etc.
Bail – make an emergency parachute exit from an airplane

Daring – do – not a legitimate term
Derring–do – action displaying heroic courage

Complement – a thing that completes or brings to perfection
Compliment – an expression of praise or admiration

You’re – contraction of “you are”
Your – possessive adjective belonging to persons the speaker is addressing


  1. yes, a nuisance because spell-checkers miss them.. but I love ’em for intentional wordplay. I have to say though that you are fundamentally wrong in your definition of a homonym – a homonym is a word that is spelled the same as another, but has a different meaning, eg. ‘refuse’. These may or may not be pronounced the same (arguably – some will say a true homonym has to be one that is pronounced differently also). Those in your example text are all homophones – sound alike but spelled differently. You can tell by the word, if you break it down to its Classical roots – homo (same); phone (sound). Homonym would be something like ‘same name’.

    • Please read the disclaimer at the beginning of the post. Thanks for looking.

  2. I did good, I caught 20 of them! I find them very jarring, so I think that, overall, I’m pretty good at catching errors like these.

  3. Actually, “loose” and “lose” are neither homonyms nor homophones; they do not sound alike nor (obviously) are they spelled alike. They are merely spelling errors of each other. It’s the same with “affect” and “effect,” though the pronunciations there are a bit more subtle.

    Furthermore, I’m very glad that you included “fort” and “forte.” Almost no one nowadays knows that they are pronounced alike (including me, at least for a while; I was corrected about this by English professor Dr. James Gifford many years ago).

    And J.M. Kelly may have been doing “good” while checking the text—feeding homeless orphans, perhaps—but he certainly did “well” to find as many as he did.

    • True. But the two are so often mistakenly interchanged, I decided to include them.

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