From Scott:

Last week, Rick went into some detail regarding the perils and pitfalls of punctuation, or more specifically, commas. After pausing to salute his efforts, I would like to move forward into another area that can get a writer in a bit of trouble: homophones. For some of you, this may come naturally. But beware with homophones: a lack of diligence brought about by high confidence could leave you using the wrong words, and possibly cost you part of your audience.

[LANGUAGE NOTE FROM RICK: the term “homophone” comes from two Greek roots– “homo” = same and “phone” = voice/sound. Also, don’t confuse the Greek root “homo/homeo” with the Latin root “homo” that refers to “man” as in Homo sapiens. The word “human” comes from this same Latin root. Back to Scott…]

The term homophone refers to two or more words that, while having the same (or nearly the same) pronunciation, have different uses and meanings. We are all familiar with them:

our / hour
one / won (seriously—where does the “w” sound come from in “one”?)
ceiling / sealing

…and so on.

And we have all found ourselves writing “there,” when we knew we needed the possessive form “their.” These are the simple homophones, where typically the reason for misuse is usually carelessness. Unfortunately, word processors will not always catch these little misuses and will sometimes report a misuse where none exists. We know what we meant to write, but our brain will tend to read right through the problem without catching it.

This is where another set of eyes will pay tremendous dividends. When you read someone else’s work, you will immediately catch virtually every homophonic miscue the writer commits. Since you have come into the passage not knowing what’s there, your brain will not anticipate the words, and therefore the errors are much easier to spot. As a backup plan, it helps to set your own writings aside for several weeks before you edit and revise. The reduced familiarity will help you to spot these minor glitches.

But what about other homophones whose usages are confused in everyday speech? Even though you may have learned the correct usage of words such as “accept” and “except,” when you undergo a constant barrage of improper grammar from others, it’s easy to lose your own mastery of the language. So let’s go over a few of the more commonly confused homophones.

Since I’ve already mentioned them, let’s start with “accept” and “except.” Side note: all given definitions in this blog entry come from dictionary.com.

“Accept” is a verb with multiple meanings, among them: to receive; to agree; to give an affirmative answer to an offer. Example: Jill accepted Scott’s marriage proposal. Being a verb, “accept” requires a subject and an object. In the case of my example, Jill is the subject, because she is the one who accepted. What did she accept? The proposal. Keep in mind that the subject and object can be implied. In the short sentence, “I accept,” it is implied that the speaker (the subject) has accepted whatever was offered. Or in the command statement, “Accept this offer,” the person being spoken to is assumed to be the subject.

“Except” is a conjunction. What is a conjunction’s function? Okay, we all remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, and we’ve all had our grammar lessons. Conjunctions are used to connect phrases, words, and clauses together, whether to complete a list or to construct a more complex sentence. “Except” is used as an exclusionary word, implying that certain conditions or qualities do not apply to what follows. Example: “Everyone loved the book, except for Dan.” This implies that Dan did not love the book. If you misuse the homophones in this case, you are left with something completely different: “Everyone loved the book, accept for Dan.” Although the grammatical structure isn’t quite right, now the sentence looks like Dan is the writer of the book. Since everyone loved his novel, someone needs to “accept” the award for him.

Another set of homophones, similar both in appearance and the level of misuse, is “affect” and “effect.” The definition of “affect” (a verb) is to act on or change a person or object. Ironically, one of the definitions of “affect” is to have an effect on something. Example: “The death of his pet dragon affected him deeply.” As with “accept,” remember that as a verb, “affect” will have a subject and an object. When you see those aspects present, you need a verb, and “affect” is the correct choice.

“Effect,” on the other hand, is typically a noun, meaning a consequence or result. Example: “The death of his pet dragon had a terrible effect on him.” Notice that here, the homophone is the object of the verb, and therefore a noun is needed. Although a bit awkward, this sentence should help to keep these two words straight: The effects of the disease affected her more than she admitted.

A rare but acceptable usage of “effect” is as a verb, meaning to cause. An example of this is: “John said he would effect a change in the company policy.” “Effect,” in that case, means that John caused a change. If you used “affect” instead, it would indicate that the change was already going to occur, but John altered it in some way.

Here’s a trio of words which, while not entirely fitting into the definition of homophones, still cause endless problems for writers: assure, ensure, and insure. I have seen these three words endlessly substituted for one another, at times seeming almost random in their usage. A simple understanding of them will help you sort this one out.

Let’s start with “assure,” a verb, meaning to state with confidence. Example: “I can assure you that you will love that movie.” That one is pretty simple. I don’t think too many people confuse “assure”… after all, have you ever bought car assurance? But let’s move on to the other pair, where the real problems start.

Next up is “ensure,” another verb. The definition: to guarantee something. An example: “I left early to ensure that I would get home before the snowstorm.” Again, this word has nothing to do with car “ensurance.” It is used when the speaker is trying to promise a certain outcome.

Finally, we have “insure,” also a verb. This one is tricky, because the meaning is very similar to “ensure,” which is probably why the two are erroneously interchanged so often. One definition: to secure against a financial loss. This is the primary difference: although “insure” can be used in other ways, such as indemnification against loss, it is always financial. If you operate under the idea that “insure” is used only for “insurance,” you are most likely headed in the right direction. Example: “I went to State Farm to insure my car.” Remember, financial leanings will not absolutely indicate the use of “insurance.” Case in point: “To ensure financial stability, insurance is a must.” In that situation, even though it references finances, it is still a guarantee (of financial stability). Therein lies the key.

To sum them up, here’s an example using all three words in one sentence: I can assure you that if you insure your car with a reputable company, they will ensure that you will be well taken care of. “Assure” offers a promise, “insure” is used for the financial guarantee for the car, and “ensure” is the promise of good treatment by the company.

Here’s a real puzzler: “Altogether” versus “all together.” The first word, “altogether,” is an adverb that means completely or entirely. Example: “That marathon course had altogether too many hills.” It is a reference to the course in its entirety, hence the use of “altogether.”

On the other hand, “all together” is used to indicate that everyone or everything is moving or doing something together. For example: “It’s time for us to run this marathon. All together now!” The best way to tell the difference between these two homophonic terms is to ask this question: can you rephrase the sentence to use “all” and “together” separately? In this case, yes: “It’s time for us to run this marathon. Let’s all run together!” You can’t do that with my previous example, so you must use “altogether.”

Obviously, we could go on all day about the problems with homophones. But you get the point. Keep your Chicago Manual of Style–or other reference–nearby, and don’t be afraid to use it. As we used to say in the Airborne, “When in doubt, whip it out!” Of course, we were referring to our reserve parachute, not the Manual of Style.

–Scott