Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo; and so, sew, and sow.

Homographs share the same spelling, and sometimes the same sound, but have different meanings. An example is well, as in wishing well, and well, as in well wishes.

Words that share the same spelling but have different sounds and meanings are also called heteronyms. Sow, a female adult pig (pronounced sou), and sow, to scatter seed (pronounced soh), are heteronyms; they’re homographs, too.

And then there’s confusingly similar words, such as affect and effect, desert and dessert, flammable and inflammable (both mean combustible, easy to catch fire).

Homophones and confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of. A malapropism is the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, with humorous results. Before grampaw could read my poem, he had to put on his testicles. [spectacles]

Malapropisms from Gloria on Modern Family

“Don’t give me an old tomato.” [ultimatum]

“Blessings in the skies.” [in disguise]

“Carpool tunnel syndrome.” [carpal]

“It’s a doggy dog world.” [dog-eat-dog]

Some (homophone: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

colonel  an officer
kernel  seed in a nut

delusion  misleading of the mind
illusion  misleading of the mind as well as a misleading of the senses
The lake mirage, far on the desert horizon, was a tantalizing illusion. Steve, crazed by thirst, gave into the delusion that if he flapped his arms hard enough, he could fly to it.

Though the words overlap in meaning, delusion is the stronger word. Illusion, however, is the more common word.

discreet   tactful, prudent, circumspect; keep something quiet
discrete   separate, detached, individually distinct
A discreet way to inform a gentleman his pants are unzipped is to lean forward and whisper in his ear, “Pardon me, sir, your fly is down.” Discrete from this is the following method… point at the poor guy’s groin and say loud enough for everyone to hear, “Hey! Got a license to sell hot dogs? Your fly’s open, pervert!”

Thanks to computer spelling checkers and unthinking writers, discreet and discrete are so often “misspelled” and mixed up that we all might as well throw our hands up and allow interchangeable spelling for these two words.

Wait a minute! If we did that, discreet / discrete and discrete / discreet would become both homophones and homographs – two, two, two mints in one!

The Word Detective, a great blog for word lovers with a sense of humor, dissects discreet / discrete

eruption   sudden violent discharge; outbreak
irruption   sudden violent entrance; invasion

flew  did fly
flue  chimney
flu  influenza

hail   ice
hale   salute, greet; summon
hale   healthy

insight  seeing deeply into something
incite   pick a fight

pare  whittle down
pair   two of something
pear  fruit shaped like that nice woman who lives across the street
Oh, there she is now!

precisian   a person who is rigidly precise or punctilious, especially as regards religious rules. The Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock were precisians. So, I guess, are the Taliban.
precision   accuracy; exactness

steal   take without permission
steel   iron treated with intense heat and mixed with carbon to make it hard and tough

tire   to become weary.
tire   ring of rubber, usually inflated with air, placed around the rim of a wheel to provide traction and cushion the ride. The British spell it tyre, and thereby change a homograph to a homophone.
I quickly tire of Steve’s stupid blog. I’d rather change a flat tire in the pouring rain than read it.

vice   moral fault or failing
vise   tool with tight-holding jaws

waiver   relinquishment of a right or obligation
waver   someone who vacillates or is unsteady

See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date.

I’m gratified by reader response to my blog. As you can see by all the comments, people love it!

Here’s a typical reaction to Steve of Upland . . .

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