Those pesky homophones strike again

An e-mail message that arrived last week asked me to “take a peak” at a website.

Now, if I were to “take a peak,” I’d probably take the one at Mount Hood in Oregon or perhaps Pike’s in Colorado or Mont Blanc in the Alps.

If I wanted to look at a website, I’d take a peek, of course. And if the site piqued my interest, I might bookmark it.

We all stumble occasionally over homophones, those pesky words that sound alike but that have different spellings and meanings. When writers and editors get in a hurry, they let people “take the reigns,” let buildings “compliment” one another or talk about “state aide” being cut.

Affect/effect

For instance, Ken Auletta’s excellent book Googled contains this passage:

This is one of those times when the correct verb is effect, meaning “to bring about” or “produce an effect.”

Think about it this way: Much of the time, affect is the verb, effect the noun.

Alcohol will affect the way you drive after it takes effect.

When you are writing about change, though, you need to use effect as a verb.

Principal/principle

Many people learn about the noun principal with the memory aid “the principal is your pal.” Many writers still trip over principal as an adjective, though.

Remember that a guiding rule or basic truth is a principle. The first, dominant or leading thing is principal. Principle is a noun; principal may be a noun or an adjective.

She is the school principal.

He is the principal violinist.

Backup/back up

Backup and back up aren’t really homophones, but writers stumble over them in much the same way.

Back up is a verb. You should back up your computer frequently, or Be careful when you back up your truck to the loading dock.

Backup, on the other hand, is either a noun or an adjective. It’s never a verb:

What is your backup plan? or He said he made a backup of all his data.

So what should you do?

There are no across-the-board solutions to getting homophones right.

My advice: Whenever you run across a homophone in writing or editing, stop, think and look it up. You are always better off taking a little extra time and looking something up than in looking like a fool by publishing something you thought was right.


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