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Be Discreet With Discrete Meanings of Homonyms


Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

They also are an embarrassment for professional journalists who should 1) know the difference or 2) know enough to know they don't know the difference.

Mose argues that the misuse of homonyms is often a result of a reading-deprived background – one in which a person grew up hearing the words but having never seen them in written text. Of course, carelessness sometimes is the cause.

Maybe the most commonly confused homonyms are complement and compliment, with led and lead a close second, and faze and phase a distant third. But those are used often enough that writers and editors should never get them wrong.

In his daily reading and editing chores, Mose has recently seen some not-so-commonly used homonyms that escaped into the wild. Mose was able to corral them before they trampled the public (presented in the order in which Mose encountered them in copy):

team vs. teem – The football squad is a team; the more obscure teem is a verb that usually means to be full or to swarm (e.g., a river teeming with fish), though it can mean to bear offspring, or to pour (e.g., a teeming rain).

lean vs. lien – Legally speaking, a lien is a claim placed on an asset. Folks who don't pay their property taxes might find a lien has been placed on their home, making them unable to sell or transfer the real estate until the taxes are paid. Lean can be an adjective (a lean cut of beef) or a verb (lean on me, figuratively speaking).

loan vs. lone – A sole (not soul) bidder was described in copy as a “loan bidder,” which sounded as if a lender were submitting a competitive offer. But that actually was the only bidder – a lone offer was received. Think the Lone Ranger – the last man standing.

bale vs. bail – Language from the farm can be confusing for us non-aggies. A bale is a large bundle; bail is what you post to get your drunken uncle released from jail. Cotton and hay are baled. Water is bailed from a boat. Also look out for sew vs. sow; the latter is for seeding.

discreet vs. discrete – To be discreet is to be careful or diplomatic. Discrete is an adjective that means separate and district or unrelated.

The more you read, the more you see. The more you see, the more you know.