Writing Tips: The Twenty Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

It’s 10:00 AM. Do you know where your lexicographer is?

Andrew Timothy Post writer science fiction homophones grammar rage

The world of print journalism has been having a tough time lately.

Thanks to the Internet, the people of Planet Earth are no longer a tribe of slow, thoughtful readers who were content to wait a week for a newspaper or a month for a magazine.

Now we’re a bunch of gnats.

We’re a gigantic school of people-shaped goldfish who flick back and forth between webpages on our phones and tablets, skim content shamelessly, and decide in less than four seconds whether we want to keep reading a blog post or an article.

Woe betide any publication that isn’t online, and a pox on them if they have a paywall.

Because subscriptions to print magazines have tanked, a great many magazines and newspapers (even nationally syndicated ones) have been forced to lay off their staff of editors and fact checkers. This means that, naturally, the fallible journalists penning articles for The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, National Review, and other sites and blogs I patrol frequently have let some…mistakes slip through.

Me being the incessant, obsessive-compulsive proofreader that I am, I catch them.

Andrew Timothy Post writer blog science fiction homophones grammar rage
And they make me angry. Very, very angry.

Okay, big deal. So a few typos slip through. I understand how it happens. Journalists aren’t perfect. They have to be their own editors and proofreaders now, and sometimes they slip. I’m not angry about it. I used to be, but not anymore.

But there’s one type of spelling error I simply cannot abide, no matter whether I’m reading the Siskiyou Daily News or the New York Times.

I hate it (absolutely 100% HATE IT) when people screw up homophones.

So, because I want you writers to succeed, and because I can’t stay silent on this topic any longer or I’ll literally explode…

Here is a list of

THE TOP TEN HOMOPHONES
PEOPLE SCREW UP MOST FREQUENTLY IN PRINT MEDIA AND ON THE WEB
(FOR YOUR SOLE ENJOYMENT AND EDIFICATION). YOU’RE WELCOME.

(Because screw brevity.)

1. rack / wrack

People, people, people. A rack (n.) is a framework made of wood or metal you use to store things. To rack (v.) something means to put it on a rack. (You may also see references to “racking the slide” on a semiautomatic handgun, but I don’t like that term either.) To wrack (v.) means to “utterly ruin something,” according to Merriam-Webster. (The word “wrack” comes from the same etymological roots as the word “wreck.”) So yes, when you’re thinking so hard you’re slamming your head into the desk, you’re wracking your brains trying to find an answer. Not racking them.

2. its / it’s

So simple, a caveman could do it. It’s is a contraction for “it is.” Do I like pie? Yes, it’s lovely. Its without an apostrophe indicates possession. I simply love my pet octopus. It likes to crawl up the sides of the aquarium glass with its tentacles.

3. affect / effect

This one’s tricky. Grammarly has an excellent article on it.

4. horde / hoard

The Mongol hordes galloped across the steppes and looted themselves a hoard of treasure.

5. capital / capitol

The California State Capitol building is on 10th Street and L Street in California’s capital city of Sacramento.

6. compliment / complement

A compliment is a nicety, a polite expression of admiration. My wife gave me a lovely compliment the other day. A complement is something which “completes, or brings to perfection.” My wife said that my blue tie was the perfect complement to my eyes.

7. lie / lay

Again, this is a tricky one. I’ll let Grammar Girl handle it.

8. brake / break

To break is to smash something, or become broken yourself. To brake is to make a moving vehicle slow down by pushing the brake pedal.

9. breech / breach

This one isn’t as common as the others, but it still bugs me, especially when I’m reading an article about guns by someone who doesn’t know the first thing about guns. (My dad’s a gunsmith and I’ve been shooting since I was a kid, so it annoys me no end when some amateur journalist comes along and starts mislabeling all the parts of a firearm, or worse—completely misrepresenting a weapon’s capabilities and specifications.) A breach is a gap or a hole in something. (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”) A breech is the part of a cannon behind the bore. Breech-loading rifles and shotguns are those where a round is inserted directly into the rear of the barrel instead of an internal or external magazine. The word “breech” used to mean “buttocks”—hence the archaic term “breeches” for pants, and the not-so-archaic term “breech birth,” when a baby is born butt-first instead of headfirst.

10. than / then

Then is an adverb which indicates that something happened after something else happened. I ate breakfast, then I went to work. Than is a conjunction and preposition intended to introduce the second element in a comparison. I’d rather sit around in my PJs all day than go to work.

 

There, that’s done. I’ll get off my soapbox now. Get off my blog, open your latest manuscript or WIP, and start patrolling for homophones. Or I’ll leap through the fiber-optic cable and give you a Hulk noogie.

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

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