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A Word, Please: You'll be loath to mess up homophones

December 02, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

If you think your shoes compliment your outfit, we need to talk. No, not about fashion. You probably have a better sense of that than I do. It's mental health that we need to discuss.

You see, shoes can't talk, and if they could, they would probably focus on issues closer to the ground — for example, foot hygiene and the hazards of sidewalk gum.

Absurd as the idea of talking shoes may be, otherwise sane people make statements like this every day. The absurdity is caused by the one-letter difference between "compliment" and "complement." The former means to make a flattering remark. The latter means to round out or complete, the way a well-chosen wine is said to complete a meal. So shoes complement, not compliment, an outfit.

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Writing errors occur on many levels. There are the egregious mistakes that prove the writer truly doesn't care — stuff like, "Their are several luau's to choose from." There are the ultra-arcane mistakes that are undetectable to all but the most informed grammar buffs — stuff like, "Unable to buy the textbooks he needed for the course, Joe's grades suffered."

(In case you're wondering, that is technically a dangler. To a really picky person, it means that Joe's grades were unable to buy books — not Joe himself.)

But in between the painfully obvious and the impossibly abstruse — well, these in-between errors are the worst because the people who make them are trying to write well. And a good chunk of those errors we can clump in with "compliment" and "complement" under the label of "frequently confused words."

"Lead" gets confused a lot. As a present tense verb that rhymes with "need," it's fine. As a noun that means a metal and rhymes with "bed" it's fine. But too often people use "lead" as a past tense, as in, "After we arrived, one thing lead to another."

Yes, the proper past tense of the verb rhymes with the metal "lead." But it's spelled "led."

Here's an error I spotted in an online U.S.News & World Report article: "As long as seniors vote in large numbers and support lobbyists in Washington, politicians will be loathe to make major cuts in retiree benefits." Oops.

"Loathe," according to most dictionaries, is a verb meaning to hate. "Loath" is an adjective that means reluctant or resistant. That's the one they wanted.

If something doesn't faze you, you don't want to spell it "phase." And if something piques your curiosity, that's not spelled like a mountain peak.

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