Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are words that sound the same and sometimes even have the same spelling, but they have different meanings and origins. Examples are so and sewhere and hear, and bear (the animal), bear (to tolerate), and bare (naked).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that sound identical but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo; and so, sow, sew.

Homographs are words identical in spelling and often with the same sound, but have different meanings. An example is well, a hole drilled in the earth to obtain water, and well, in good health.

Homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of.

Here’s an example from an Ohio newspaper, where the headline to a story about a woman who was injured at a county fair has a homonym that gallops off in an unintended direction: Woman kicked by horse upgraded to stable.

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

ale malted beverage darker and more bitter than beer
ail to trouble or afflict; to feel unwell, as from drinking too much ale

air atmosphere
ere before (poetic)
err be incorrect or mistaken
heir one who inherits

all ready completely prepared

band musical group
band something that constricts or binds
banned prohibited

cannon artillery piece
canon regulation; rule; dogma
canyon deep ravine

foul offensive
fowl bird, especially domestic cock or hen

Cartoon by Kent Lamberson artofkent.com

right entitlement; privilege
rite ceremony
wright workman, as in millwright or playwright
write what I despair of ever doing to my satisfaction

toad tailless, leaping amphibian
toed having toes
towed past tense of tow

vain conceited
vane device showing wind direction
vein narrow channel; lode; blood vessel

Woman kicked by horse upgraded to stable

Helicopter powered by human flies

Local high school dropouts cut in half

People mean to say one thing, and end up saying something completely different, sometimes bizarre, so upside down and inside out it’s right out of Alice in Wonderland…

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

I recently came across a little gem of a book in the Upland library that covers another way people trip over language: the many silly redundancies in all too common use, such as ATM machinerepeat again, scheduled appointmentadvance warning, forcible rapepersonal friend, or hot water heater (think about it).

The books title displays three such tautologies: Armed Gunmen, True Facts, and Other Ridiculous Nonsense.

Here’s a sample of author Richard Kallan’s “compiled compendium” of “repetitive redundancies,” including his witty send up of bloated absurdities in popular use:

Deliberate Lie
More forthright than the inadvertent lie

Honest Truth
When all other truths fail

Innocent Bystander
A bystander inexperienced in the ways of the world

Raining Outside
Less surprising than when it rains inside

Mutual Cooperation
Team version of solo cooperation

New Innovation
Preferable to an old innovation

Sudden Impulse
Impulse that doesn’t embrace a strategic plan

Future Expectations
Expectations unachieved in advance

Free Gift
Finally: a gift for which you’re not charged

There are hundreds of commonly used tautologies listed in Armed Gunmen, True Facts, and Other Ridiculous Nonsense. I’m guilty of using many of them, though now I catch myself—this book has me thinking about unnecessary words in my writing.

Kallan dispenses much more helpful writing advice than that of the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse I quote above, and he does it with wicked wit and biting humor.

Kallan says, tongue in cheek, that the goal of his unique and one-of-a-kind book is “to alert readers to our propensity for tautology—to present a compiled compendium of repetitive redundancies so that readers can see with their own two eyes how to remove and eliminate such excessive verbiage from their communicative language.”

This illustrated book is lots and lots of amusing fun. Ever since I completely finished reading it, I’ve got into the regular habit of carefully scrutinizing each and every written document I take pen and ink to, and I myself eliminate out every single one of the absurdly ridiculous repetitive redundancies I may perhaps find and locate.

I’d love to know your favorite homographs, homophones and confusingly similar words, as well as any humorous malapropisms and tautologies (repetitive redundancies) you’d like to share.

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