Ellen Cline, writer
Creative communication that markets, informs, and entertains

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Word woes–homonym horrors, the sequel

Author: ; Published: Mar 8, 2010; Category: Editing and Proofing; Tags: , , , ; No Comments

Mr. Smiley is appalled at homonym errors

Even the greatest spellchecker is not going to save you from using a word that might seem correct, but just isn’t quite “write.” 

The odds of falling into this trap have increased as word processing programs try to “help” you by inserting  the word they think you want and need.  It’s easy to get lulled into a false feeling of security as the computer assures you that everything has been checked for spelling.  So how can you end up with the wrong word?

Just remember, the machine may help you find some errors, but it’s more than happy to add more. If you use a word that’s spelled correctly, that doesn’t mean it’s the word you want. It could be a homonym, just waiting to inflict horror, right when you least expect it.

Yes, it’s time for another episode of homonym horrors.


  • From a cartoon strip, where a character is reminiscing about her experiences in WWII—I kept seeing Lieutenant Kiesl because the camp was sort of an entrance point, a weigh station for arriving P.O.W.s who were interrogated then sent on to other camps.  Meanwhile…”
    (I think they mean way station.  I doubt if the purpose of the place was to see how much the P.O.W.s weighed)
  • From a high tech magazine article—Subhead:  A device can power indefinitely to wireless censors
     (I doubt they meant censor here, unless this is supposed to be top secret technology. But then they wouldn’t be writing about it in this magazine, would they? Besides the homonym problem, the subhead is badly written. Maybe it should say: Device can provide power indefinitely to wireless sensors.)
  • From a healthcare organization member newsletter—Subhead: A complementary benefit.
    (This is a common mistake. Since this section of the article is about a service that members don’t have to pay any additional fees for, a.k.a. free, they should have used complimentary. There is something called complementary medicine, however, it’s generally not free. 
  • From a dentist’s direct mail piece–We work to educate all our patients so that they can take an active roll in their treatment…
    (Bread rolls are inanimate objects, and I doubt they’re talking about a roll in the hay, so we’ll assume they mean an active role.)
  • From an email—I am in the throws of an RFP deadline and up to my eyeballs in other deadlines.
    (We’re not struggling to throw a ball here. The desired word was throes.)


We all misuse homonyms at one time or another. Sometimes it’s due to careless typing. Other times it’s caused by misunderstandings about the difference in meaning between words that sound the same but are spelled differently.


Do you really want to know?

Author: ; Published: Jan 28, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Editing and Proofing; Tags: , , ; No Comments

painting of angry man

Sometimes people will ask me to critique their existing brochure, website or other marketing materials. Usually they’re happy to hear how they can do better next time. Once in a while I wonder why they’re asking. You see, they really don’t want to know. 

Most people are asking for a critique because they know it’s time to update or improve what they have. There’s a minority though that really just want some sort of validation that what they did in the past is good.

Maybe they paid a lot of money for it. And maybe they themselves were involved in the creative.

In those cases, no matter how diplomatically I phrase it, those people don’t want to hear that there are things that can be better. Even though they’ve asked, and have contracted with me to give them advice, they don’t want to accept that everything isn’t perfect just the way it is.

Once in a while people who are very unlikely to ever become clients ask me for free advice. My policy, especially if the piece is really bad and the person is a relative, is to just say no. Or I suddenly have to go against my nature and become a flaky person who just never gets back to them.

In marketing pieces, many aspects can be subjective. There’s always another way to show or say something.  Maybe the designer used blue and personally, I would have preferred green. Or, in my humble opinion, the tone of the copy is a bit too flowery for the subject matter.

Other things are harder to justify; they’re just bad.

For example: 

  • Type that’s hard to read
  • An illogical order for points
  • Inconsistency with other marketing messages and materials
  • Lots of typos

You get the idea.

I was recently reviewing a client’s ad with them.  We were talking about how it could be improved next time.  In the course of this exercise, we flipped through the trade publication to see what other companies’ ads looked like.

We were discussing the good, bad and ugly when I pointed out a small ad that I felt could be stronger, if only they had focused on one photo instead of the five they included.  My client said that maybe I should contact this company and tell them how their ad can be improved. 

I said, well, maybe not. I know this is a method some people use to get new business. It’s just always a tricky thing offering advice, even when it’s solicited. But in this case, they didn’t ask and more than likely, they don’t really want to know.

Word woes—homonym horrors

Author: ; Published: Jan 13, 2010; Category: Editing and Proofing; Tags: , , ; One Comment

Mr. Smiley is appalled at homonym errors

Reading and writing a lot can turn you into a tough audience, a real critic. I notice things and am appalled. Most people probably didn’t even see them.

When I have time and am in the mood, I write emails to book publishers, small business owners and large company webmasters pointing out typos and other errors I’ve come across. Usually they’re appreciative.

A few years back I started a file called “Word Woes” and put in errors that seemed to be appearing before me almost daily. Many of these were what I would call homonym horrors—the use of a word that sounds the same as the one intended, but with a different meaning. Here are a few examples:

  • From a newspaper story–The line can be difficult to tow. And the way a businessperson chooses to handle it can be as different as each denomination or religion itself.
    (How heavy is that line they’re towing? Of course the expression they mean is toe the line.)
  • An email from a website payment service–We are currently aware of the website issue and are working to correct it. Thank you for your patients.
    (I’m not a medical professional and have no patients to give them, so I imagine they mean patience.)
  • From a novel–“Who’re you talking about?” asked Georgia absentmindedly as she poured over colored photos in a magazine, VIP Weekly, her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth.
    (Well I don’t think she poured liquid over the photos but instead pored over them or studied them carefully.)
  • From another novel–Now, Will didn’t even look like the same man. He seemed rung out, his complexion sallow, and he’d lost a good deal of weight.
    (No bells in sight. I think they mean wrung out, but maybe since nobody wrings out clothes anymore the meaning, and along with it, the proper spelling, are becoming lost.)

Of course I find errors in things clients ask me to edit. But these people are asking for help before they publish something, so I’m not including any of those bloopers here.