English is hard. Certain words may be spelled the same but have completely different meanings. Other words may sound the same, but have different spellings (and thus, different meanings). There are even words that may change meaning with the addition or subtraction of a single letter. This is why context is a huge part of the English language. Depending on the words around it, the correct word can be implied, but an incorrect word will still jar the reader enough to pull them from the story. They’ll likely re-read the sentence, trying to make sure they understood the author correctly. When they realize the writer made a mistake, they’ll continue reading, but they’ll have a seed of mistrust planted in their minds. From that point onward, they’ll question every word the writer uses, just to make sure they aren’t mistaken again. This increases scrutiny on the part of the reader, and can often distract from the author’s intent: conveying a story.
By now, we’re all aware of the common homophones/homographs that will trip up the inexperienced writer. Here’s a brief list:
While the experienced writer will know which of these homophones to use, I’ve noticed many mistakes will sneak through. These are words that won’t be caught by spell check because they’re still spelled correctly, just without the correct context. Sometimes these errors can be due to the writer hearing the word in question, but not knowing its correct spelling. The best way to improve your writing and avoid these mistakes is to read . . . a lot. In the end, vocabulary errors are the result of knowing a word, but not knowing the correct way to use it. By reading as much as you can, you’ll eventually pick up the correct context for words like “affect” (to act upon) when compared to the similar “effect” (the result of). Below is a list of words, in no particular order, that would be missed by spell check (they can even be missed by the most astute readers as well):
Blond/Blonde – Much like fiancé and fiancée, the extra “e” is meant to indicate the gender of the word. “Blond” is a color associated with men, whereas “Blonde” is the female equivalent. This also applies to protégé/ protégée, which themselves are different from the word “prodigy” (a young person with exceptional talent).
Raze/Raise – If you raze a family, you’ll likely go to jail for murder. “Raze” is associated with demolition, whereas “Raise” is lifting something up. These two words are on entirely different ends of the spectrum.
Elicit/Illicit – If you want to “elicit” (to bring out) a response from someone, make sure you don’t use “illicit” (illegal) substances.
Insure/Ensure – These two are similar but are different enough to bear mentioning. If you “ensure” something, you guarantee it will happen, whereas if you “insure” something, you are protecting it from future harm.
Shown/Shone – “Shown” and “shone” both sound the same, but “show” and “shine” do not. Both are past participle verbs, but “shown” is the past form of “show” and “shone” is the past form of “shine.”
Peak/Peek/Pique – One of the worst review requests I have received wanted to know if the synopsis of a book “peaked my interest.” Misuse of these three words is more common than you’d think (the first two being the worst offenders). Just so we’re clear, “peak” is the top of something, “peek” is a quick glance at something, and “pique” is curiosity about something.
Taught/Taut – I’ve been guilty of this one. “Taught” is when a student learns something. “Taut” is a condition of tightness (like a rope or piece of fabric).
Rapt/Wrapped – These words might sound the same, but they have very different meanings. “Rapt” is an adjective (engrossed or absorbed), whereas “wrapped” is a verb (to cover something). Writers who struggle with spelling should be extremely careful that they don’t accidentally use the word “raped” either, as it can ruin a proper sentence.
Mike/Mic – While “mike” is often an accepted spelling, “mic” is the shortened form of “microphone.” Knowing the original word helps to inform the shortened spelling.
Cubical/Cubicle – Both of these words describe square volumes, but “cubical” is an adjective for a cube-like space, and “cubicle” is the noun used to represent this space.
Accept/Except – Another somewhat common error, “accept” is a verb of inclusion, whereas “except” is a preposition or conjunction dealing with exclusion.
Consul/Console – Two very different words here, as “consul” is a government official and “console” is either a computer system or what you do when dealing with a grieving friend.
Passed/Past – These simple words are often used in place of each other, even if they don’t mean the same thing. “Passed” is used when successfully completing a test or after two objects have completed the act of passing by each other. “Past” refers to everything that has happened up until now.
Please/Pleas – The first of these words is used when you’re asking nicely for something. The second is when you’re begging for it.
Arranged/Arraigned – When an activity like a wedding is “arranged,” plans are made. When someone is “arraigned,” they’re being brought before the court because they’re accused of something.
Conscience/Conscious – A “conscience” is something you have that tells the difference between right and wrong. “Conscious” is what you are when you’re awake.
Shoulder/Soldier – Huge differences here, as one is a joint at the top of your arm, and the other is a fighter in the military.
College/Collage/Colleague – These three words have similar sounds and spellings, but are very different from each other in meaning. “College” is a school of higher learning. “Collage” is a collection of assorted items. “Colleague” is a co-worker or associate.
Lightning/Lightening – The first word is an electrical strike, the second word is the action of lessening a heavy load.
Preceding/Proceeding – If something is “preceding,” it is happening before something else. If something is “proceeding,” it is moving forward or going according to plan.
Exiting/Exciting – When you leave a building, you are “exiting.” If something is stimulating, it is “exciting.”
Breathe/Breath – While both words are linked to similar actions, “breathe” is the verb, and “breath” is the noun that is verbed.
Quiet/Quite/Quit – “Quiet” is without noise. “Quite” is to the greatest extent. “Quit” is to stop.
Fir/Fur/Fire – Another set of words that will sneak by a spell checker, “fir” is an evergreen tree, “fur” is the coat of an animal, and “fire” is a collection of flames.
After reading through the above list, you might be surprised that anyone could confuse some of these words. And yet, I have read many books that have made these errors. Each of the above sets of words came from someone making a mistake and allowing that error to appear in a printed book. This is why quality control is essential, and why you can’t just trust spell check to correct your mistakes. Words have meaning, so make sure you’re using the right ones!