Friday, June 24, 2011

Homonyms for adults

During the school year, I tutor one afternoon a week with a program called Start the Adventure in Reading (STAIR) that targets at-risk second graders. It's totally selfish. We must teach children to love reading so that one day, they will buy our books.

As is always the case with trying to give back, I learn a lot more than I teach. One lesson I never thought much about is homonyms. You remember--words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings. With my STAIR student, I read stories and search for words like sea and see; tale and tail; blue and blew; to, too and two.

In the past couple of months, I've noticed quite a few misrepresented nouns and verbs in published works-a few of them in paperbacks and blog posts, but most between hard covers. I know even high-end hardback books can't be perfect, and that a few mistakes among 100,000 words doesn't destroy a good story. But I thought I'd share what I've seen because. . .well, because there's no excuse for it. And I'm a curmudgeon.

Shears hanging in the window of a hair salon would make a creative statement. But the picture window in the elderly widow's home probably has translucent fabric panels called sheers.

People who join a team may be the teaming type, but I suspect that the mention of a "teaming crowd" was not supposed to evoke the image of people joining together in cooperative groups. I suspect the author meant to use the word "teeming," or numerous, as in the sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque inside the base of the Statue of Liberty.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Someone with a flair for style may be bright, but wouldn't light the sky the way a flare does.

When a character sets her sights on visiting a "grave sight," she could have meant a specter or ghost, or even a place where she might view something somber. But given the context, the author probably meant "a grave site," a particular location within a cemetery.

One hero was notably unphased by a bomb. I think the author meant "unfazed," or heroically undaunted, rather than unsynchronized.

Not officially found in a published work. Actually, an item my DH jotted on the grocery list. If he were a paranormal fan, I'd ask, but sense he's knot, I new he mint a slab of meet.

All through school, English classes address common homonyms, but no handy "i before e" rule applies. Spell checkers rarely help.

The other day, I typed "sales" when my character was on a sailboat. I caught my mistake, but what if I hadn't? Would an alert editor (assuming the story sells) have flagged the error for me? Not necessarily. We have to be responsible and vigilant. We have to learn the words.

The only way I know to do that is to read lists of homonyms to raise awareness. Here's a link to Alan Cooper's exhaustive online list:

He welcomes additions!


Lexi said...

Typos happen, even in published work. There's a typo on the back cover of DEMON HUNTING IN DIXIE. It says 'quite' town of Hannah and not 'quiet.' I caught it and told the editor, but by that time it was too late. Makes me cringe every time I look at it. Right there on the cover!!! Yikes.

Heather said...

One of my favorite teachers in high school would run grammar/spelling drills at the end of each class. They were the best lessons I had - she beat into us the difference between affect/effect. To this day, I go bonkers when I see those confused.

Chris Bailey said...

Lexi! I didn't notice! Typos happen all the time, even with lots of eyes on the page.

Chris Bailey said...

Affect and effect are a tough pair. And then yesterday--I read about a discrete detective. Sure, he's distinctive from others fictional detectives, but at the time, I think he was on a surveillance mission.

So many word pairs. Maybe it's our reliance on spell check that makes us vulnerable.

Chris Bailey said...

Ha! TYPO in the last comment. My eyes are tired already, and it's not even 10 a.m.

Carla Swafford said...

I actually won an e-book a few months ago by using a homophone on an editor's blog. You had to use a homophone (sounds alike, but means different things) in a title of a book that's well-known.

My winners were...
Eat Prey Love - Jeffrey Dahmer's life story (Turned out later to be an actual paranormal book but not about Dahmer.)

To Kiln a Mockingbird - a young girl strives for the perfect ceramic mockingbird; Subtitle: How I Deal with My OCD

Homonyms (same spelling and sound but mean different things) causes problems with everyone include those who are learning American English.

Wikipedia gave a great example using BOW. Bow is to bend at the waist or your legs. Or could be the front of a ship. A tied ribbon. And few others. No wonder English is so hard. LOL!