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As an editor, I spend hours literally every day combing through the written word. Because of this, I notice an array of homophones that are quite commonly confused.
noun: homophone; plural noun: homophones
1. each of two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling.
each of a set of symbols denoting the same sound or group of sounds.
Homophone literally means “same sound” when you translate the root words. Because of this, many homophones actually vary based on regional dialects. For instance, I had no idea that “pen” and “pin” were common homophones in the Midwest until I began working at an office supply store in southern Missouri. Of course, most people don’t get the spellings or meanings of those two words swapped in their minds.
I’d like to cover some of the homophones I see most commonly mistaken and how you can avoid falling victim to the dreaded homophone confusion! Bear in mind, if you simply can’t wrap your head around it, it’s okay to trust your editor or even just to google the differences. I had to look up “affect vs effect” about six dozen times before it finally stuck.
In fact, let’s start there!
A common way people differentiate between these two words is by saying that one is a verb, while the other is a noun. In fact, this is only partially true. While affect is strictly a verb, effect is actually both. Merriam Webster defines effect as “something that inevitably follows an antecedent (such as a cause or agent)” AND “to cause to come into being.” [source]
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. Affect is defined as “to produce an effect upon” or “to influence.” [source]
While the meanings in verb form are strikingly similar, they are ever so slightly different. Here is the shortcut that helped me differentiate:
Affect = Action Effect = rEsult
Sure, it’s not as neat in appearance as I would like, but it gets the job done! If that doesn’t help, try to put the words in alphabetical order within a sentence together: you might affect a change for a more desired effect. (if I have to edit this out of your manuscript, I will be shaking my head at you just a little bit, though)
If you are still in need of further clarification, you can check out this Grammar Girl article.
That said, let’s move on to the next one I see commonly confused. This one was the most surprising when I began finding it in manuscripts, but it seems to be the number one misused homophone among writers, in my experience!
For some reason, these words never even occurred to me as homophones until I started seeing them swapped in writing. If you have trouble keeping them straight, don’t worry! So do most people, especially those who don’t write regularly. In fact, my own mother recently misused “passed” in a Facebook post! The good thing about this homophone is that it has a much clearer directive than the previous one. I’ll show you!
Merriam-Webster defines past as an adjective, noun, preposition, and adverb! However, it defines strictly passed as a verb. Passed is simply a conjugation of the verb pass; it is both future perfect (I will have passed) present perfect (I have passed) past perfect (I passed) and past participle (I had passed). The only other conjugations are passes and passing. An easy trick you can use is to change the tense of your sentence: can it be changed to pass, passes, or passing and still make sense? If not, you’re probably looking for past.
Past is typically used with another action. I walked past the elevator (adverb, walked/preposition, I walked past/the elevator). The danger is now past (adjective, danger). That’s in the past (noun). You get the idea.
(Note: we use “past” in “the danger is now past” because of the word “is,” which declares the state of a noun. If we were to change “is” to “has,” which declares action, we would use “passed,” as in “the danger has now passed.”)
What are some homophones you have trouble with? Post them in the comments, and I’ll share my tricks for keeping them separate!
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