The homonym trap

Take a look at this sentence in an article in The Guardian. The author writes, “Few attendees at Sanders rallies – least of all Sanders – seem the least bit phased”. The context clearly implies that the author meant to use the word ‘fazed’ which means “to cause (someone) to feel afraid or uncertain”, whereas ‘phased’ means something else entirely.

I have seen this mistaken use many times and it is understandable given that the two words have such similar pronunciations. The word phase also appears in many situations, unlike faze, and is thus more familiar. But I am surprised that the editors at the newspaper did not catch the error.

These homonym traps are all over the place. Other common instances are there/their/they’re, its/it’s, effect/affect, compliment/complement, discrete/discreet, perimeter/parameter, and principal/principle, though I am sure that there are others that do not come to mind. One has to be vigilant to guard against them.

For me at least, one reason I make such mistakes is because before I write a word down, I ‘hear’ the sound of it in my mind rather than ‘see’ it and, if I am not careful, I can unthinkingly write the wrong word. The situation is compounded by spellchecking software because if you make a mistake, the software inserts the word that is closest to it, which may be the homonym. When writing any of these words that have homonyms, I try to pause and make sure that I am using the right one but some still slip through.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I am constantly amazed at the large number of people who seem unaware of the difference between “to” and “too”, or maybe they are unaware of “too” entirely. I don’t think its a typo in most cases because they will consistently use “to” throughout their piece. I find it all to, to, annoying.

  2. kestrel says

    My favorite of these has to do with horses. I’ve seen ads for many Catholic horses, who have “excellent *confirmation*” as opposed to *conformation*. I’ve also seen “pure bread” horses. ***SIGH***

  3. moarscienceplz says

    I’ve also seen “pure bread” horses.

    That’s a rye observation. Wheat is the world coming to? Their teachers oat to have taught them better.

  4. rq says

    Catholic horses […] “pure bread” horses

    So… Jesus was a horse?

    My peeve is ‘alright’ versus ‘all right’. The word ‘alright’ seems to have disappeared completely from the English language in favour of everything being all right instead of just plain agreeing. (“Will you go down this deep dark scary tunnel with me?” asks the Hero of the Story; “All right!” replies Trusty sidekick. Wait, this was a quiz?)

  5. says

    I am surprised that the editors at the newspaper did not catch the error.

    Quality control at newspapers has gone out the window in the internet era. You’ve got a lot of online journalism that is written Milo Yiannopolous-style: “write it for free in return for the exposure and you might get a real job in journalism someday.” I’ve seen a lot of really wretched mistakes. I saw one just this morning in which a writer said so-and-so would “pour over plans and charts” which is quite different from poring them over, indeed.

    As one internet poster I saw put it, “Commas kill! Consider:
    Let’s eat Grandma.
    Let’s eat, Grandma.”

    Spell checkers definitely don’t help. I actually turn them off for exactly the reasons you mention: if you learn to scan your writing quickly looking for words that have been underlined by your spell-checker, you miss a lot of stuff.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    rq #5
    I’m sure the Trusty Sidekick was simply suggesting that they not make any left-hand turns in the tunnel to avoid getting lost.

  7. says

    Tabby Lavalamp:
    That’s the problem with spellcheck. It’s spellcheck, not spellingincontextcheck.

    I expect that eventually some of the techniques used in google translate (statistics about what follows what, usually) could give much much better spellingincontextcheckers as well as grammarincontextcheckers. The problem with the statistical methods is you have to give them a sample of “good” writing. And then we’re back in the pit of despair…

  8. Sili says


    You’re barley trying now.

    I’ll leaven it to others to get in a wrongly spelt einkorn joke. It’s a corny maze to get through.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    So when a grim Captain Kirk tells the redshirts to “Set Fazers to ‘Kill’.” he intends for them to induce terminal anxiety?

    Our esteemed host must’ve gone to one o’ them furrin schools -- a Real American™ school don’t teach no homo nuthin’!

  10. oualawouzou says

    As a non-native speaker, the number one mistake that drives me nuts is “of” instead of “have”. “He should of done this”, “he would of said that”… What the hell?! It’s not simply a matter of homonyms, it’s a matter of basic syntax!

    And as a teacher… I’m always amazed to see that works done at home, on the computer, are often riddled with *more* mistakes than works done in class, with no access to any electronic tools. I’m not a luddite, technology is cool, but so few people learn to *use* these tools and end up doing what Marcus alluded to: fire up the spell checker, approve every correction the software proposes, call it good work (and later complain the teacher is too strict because he’s grading what actually ends up on the paper instead of what was meant to end up on it).

  11. Johnny Vector says

    I don’t always agree with Marcus Ranum, but when he says things like “Quality control at newspapers has gone out the window in the internet era,” how can I not?

    Not that HuffPo is a real newspaper, but a friend recently linked to an article there which had some really important things to say about rape. But it was so sloppily written, and riddled with basic errors, that it was all barely within my self-control to not post an enraged comment about how awful it was. (I managed to keep my mouth shut. Er, fingers still.)

    Speaking as much more an engineer than writer, I feel that if I can manage to write (mostly) correctly, people who are being paid to write could do better. Even people being paid in exposure, like at HuffPo.

  12. John Morales says

    I see such errors very frequently, even in professional publications.

    In some cases, I see the incorrect usage far more often than I see the correct one (e.g. tow the line, reign someone in).


    As a non-native speaker, the number one mistake that drives me nuts is “of” instead of “have”. “He should of done this”, “he would of said that”… What the hell?! It’s not simply a matter of homonyms, it’s a matter of basic syntax!

    Try pronouncing “should’ve” or “would’ve”, and you will understand why.

  13. oualawouzou says

    @John Morales, #14

    Oh, I understand why. It still drives me bonkers. Maybe it’s because my first language is French, and our verbs are ridiculously complex compared to English verbs, so I can’t fathom how a native speaker can fail to properly use them in writing, regardless of pronunciation. 🙁

  14. DonDueed says

    capital / capitol
    led / lead

    Then there’s the whole other world of incorrect idioms. “As of yet” drives me nuts, and it’s everywhere.

  15. trurl says

    People write / say “then” when they really mean “than”. It happens so much that I sometimes think nobody knows the word “than” even exists.

  16. mnb0 says

    A remarkable variation often happens when Dutchies like me write in English. “En” means exactly the same as “and”; it sounds almost the same. So sure enough we Dutchies tend to spell “and” as “en”.

  17. usagichan says

    DonDueed @ 17

    Never notice capitol as a problem (perhaps as it is only in common usage in the colonies ;P) -- still, capital effort Old Bean! What what… (now where can I find a monocle emoji…?)

    Your other bugbear reminds me of the old ‘proverb’, “You can take a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead!”

    I also get irrascible when people talk about homonyms when they mean homophones. Or perhaps it just sounds that way?

    Also, the Japanese (and more completely and originally Chinese, but I am only familiar with Japanese) use of ideograms mitigates some of the semantic confusion, especially as Japanese is such a homophone rich language. Of course you do need to remember a vast range of characters, and still native speakers get them wrong sometimes, but less than we seem to do with English (anecdata so ymmv).

  18. John Morales says


    I also get irrascible when people talk about homonyms when they mean homophones.

    The two terms are synonymous; I suspect you mean to refer to the distinction between homophones and homographs.

  19. usagichan says

    John Morales

    Interesting -- convinced my definitions were correct, I rushed to the bookshelf and pulled down the Concise OED (Trusting to dependable paper over this new fangled Interweb thynge) only to find that the venerable lexicographers of the Home of Learning regard all three (homonym, homophone and homograph) as synonyms. I was certainly taught the difference as per my post, but perhaps I was taught a tautology (ouch that was straining a bit too hard! And I know, I have taken semantic liberties. Still it was sitting up, begging to be hit for six). Learned something new anyway -- and perhaps it’s time to go with Humpty Dumpty on the meaning of words -- at least for homo-phonenymgraphs…

  20. John Morales says

    usagichan, I find your approach both refreshing and admirable.

    (It is messy — some homographs are heterophones for different senses, e.g. ‘wound’)

  21. usagichan says

    Regarding ‘wound’ I seem to remember a documentary about Shakesperian pronounciation suggesting that originally the two words (I assume you refer to injury and past tense of “to wind” as in wool) were pronounced the same (the strongest impression I had though was the sounding of what is now a silent “h” in hours). I seem to remember Bill S took a fairly relaxed attitude to spelling too. Maybe we’re all getting caught up in minutiae?

  22. Holms says

    Mano, I would have held that sentence at fault even without the phased / fazed error. The first section of the sentence (“Few attendees at Sanders rallies”) can easily be interpreted to mean that there are not very many attendees at Sanders rallies, then the rest of the sentence shows this to be an incorrect parsing. It could use a rewrite so as to avoid that garden path effect.

    Regarding news writing in general, I am constantly disappointed in the standards on display at news sites, as they seem to have a tendency toward worse writing than printed news. Between the author and editor, there should be multiple chances to catch such silly things, especially if the author is submittings drafts for revision before writing the final, but I suspect the draft editing process has been pretty much abandoned in online media.

    Of course, this has been steadily declining since not only the internet became ubiquitous, but also many the sheer number of channels available on television; between all those visual venues of entertainement and information, the written word barely gets a glance. So I guess I’m saying all of this could be avoided for the low low price of having a lonely childhood with no siblings, no tv, no handheld anything, and also no nearby friends due to living in a remote rural location. Yay me? Of course I became bookish in that environment; I had no other option.

    This post is the perfect opportunity for the dreaded Muphry’s Law.

  23. Ivo says

    I’ve learned English as a second (actually, fourth) language, and I never mix up such homophones.

    The main reason is that I’ve started out by learning written English, projecting onto English words some Italian-like approximation of the proper pronunciation. For a long time I kept inserted a little “y” sound in “they’re”, so how could I confuse it with “there”? (Ironically though, I often mix up “then” and “than” because they sound the same to me, although the EOD begs to differ…)

    I’ve only been able to catch up with the correct pronunciation years later. As a consequence, my mental anchors for English vocabulary are images of words’ spellings, rather than strings of sounds. It also helps that half of English spelling is close to Latin and/or French, two languages that I learned before English. Hence to my mind, “principal” and “principle” still do not sound the same, although (I hope!) I actually do pronounce them the same when speaking.

  24. grasshopper says

    Is there a synonym for cinnamon?
    Does the porpoise have a purpose?
    What has the turtle tortoise?
    Where did Abe Lincoln get his burgher dress?
    Was George Bernard Sure?

  25. says

    Can we get legislation against the use of “ups” for “increases”?? This is a serious issue. It’s like masturbation and China espionage.

  26. John Morales says

    Marcus, to strategically progress your proposal you should proactively consult with impacted stakeholders to determine action items which will provide leverage moving forward from an end-user perspective.

  27. johnson catman says

    I know they are not homonyms, but I am always amazed that people confuse “lose” and “loose” so frequently.

  28. jrkrideau says

    @ Marcus Ranum

    I disagree that spellcheckers don’t help.

    Given my level of incompetence in spelling and typing I have often thought that they are among the best things since sliced bread. The problem is that one has to know enough about the totally absurd spelling of English to know that phase != faze. Or that ttois does not mean also, father’s != fathers and so on, nearly ad infinitum.

    Essentially we have a totally screwed-up spelling system in modern English. See for example

    I tend to think that we are approaching something like Chinese where our written words are often more ideogram than a spelt word. English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds ( On the other hand in Russian if you can pronounce the word you can usually spell it and apparently Korean and Finnish are even more logical and easier to master.

    Dmitri Orlov, a linguist, has proposed a completely new way of writing English that actually seems to make sense. It just ignores homonyms and other strange things in English assuming that since we can understand things in context in speech we should be able to do so in the written language as well. It’s definitely an interesting idea and in a way deals with the idea of spelling reform by just bypassing it.

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