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

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Word Woes—Misspelling Mishaps

Author: ; Published: Jan 6, 2012; Category: Editing and Proofing; Tags: , , , ; No Comments

Mr. Smiley

I’ve been stumbling upon mistakes in places where I have rarely noticed them in the past: The New York Times Book Review, The Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day, even the J. Peterman catalog, which used to be known as the best example of catalog writing out there.

These are not all homonym problems, but a variety of typos, misspellings, misuses, and missing words.You’re not the only one making mistakes. Everyone needs an editor, even the editor. But let’s try to learn something from these mishaps.

First, two examples from the Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day, a daily email I really enjoy receiving and which usually is very well written and edited.

  • Border Crossing Word of the Day: limbo
    Theologians get credit for introducing this Latin word (meaning "border") that originally denoted a place where your not-quite-pure soul might cool its heals, whilst awaiting a possibly better final destination.

(Your soul, if it had feet, would be more likely to be “cooling its heels,” I imagine than “cooling its heals.”)

  • Say What You Will Word of the Day: bequeath
    The wish to assert a controlling hand after you’ve cashed in your chips is surely as hold as humanity, for bequeath — give by will after your death -is among the first words to appear in English.

(Here a simple typo, “hold” for “old” gives the phrase an interesting alliterative twist, but warps the meaning.)

In a review of the book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” by David McCullough, written by Stacy Schiff, in a section talking about the Franco-Prussian War, I found this:

  • A reliable topic of conversation in Paris, food was the principal one during the German siege, when cat meat revealed itself be a delicacy and Paris solved its rat problem.

(Just a tiny word, “to,” is missing, but it makes the whole sentence wrong.)

In the J. Peterman catalog, in a description for the Tie-Shoulder-Dress, the generally witty copy was marred by this example of a misused word:

  • Let’s not even mention the fact there’s a cocktail with your namesake at the Polo Lounge. Yes, yes, your capriciousness always keeps them guessing.

(The cocktail cannot be “with your namesake.” It can be a cocktail with your name or named after you. For namesake to work in this sentence, it would need to say the cocktail is your namesake.)

And last but not least, I found this in a local magazine, in the letter from the editor:

  • Jacob McGee is called a high-rise technician. That might not mean much for most of us. But he’s the guy who straps himself into a harness and repels down high-rise buildings to clean their windows. Well, weather permitting, of course.

(I guess he hopes he repels from instead of attracts to the building as it might hurt when he smashes into it. It would probably be safer if he rappelled.)


Word Woes—homonym horrors III

Author: ; Published: Apr 18, 2011; Category: Editing and Proofing; Tags: , , , ; No Comments

Glodis Will Reign in Political Spending

Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. 

Although they’re always out there, lurking, periods of time go by where I just don’t notice too many juicy homonym horrors. Then again, sometimes they just seem to be everywhere I look. It’s been a slow period, but here are several I collected in recent months.

Last week I saw one in an invitation to a winery event that sounded really great, even if the food descriptions had gone a bit awry

  • This week…will prepare some special hors d’oeuvres in addition to our normal fair. Chef…will serve wild mushroom bites with a red wine sauce, wanton cups filled with mandarin chicken salad and mini onion tartlets with goat cheese. Truly tasty!

I’m sure it all is truly tasty, but when we’re talking about food it’s generally fare, not fair, unless you’re talking about fair trade. As for those wanton cups, just tell them to stop that inappropriate behavior. I’m guessing they meant wonton cups, as in something made from a wonton wrapper.

In March I was reading a really fun and fascinating book, J. Maarten Troost’s “The Sex Lives of Cannibals.” I had barely begun when I came upon this:

  • Enwetak was being canvassed as a sight for testing the hydrogen bomb and the drilling indicated that the atoll was suitable for obliteration.

The author explains in the book how some of these atolls are really difficult to spot from the sea until you’re practically right on them, but in this case I think he meant site, as in place or location, not sight, as in able to see something.

In the February issue of Consumer Reports, Goofs, glitches, gotchas section,
someone sent in a Political ad saying:

  • Guy Glodis Will Reign in Wasteful Political Spending.

Of course they meant “rein in” not reign in.  I don’t think they wanted to say that their candidate was the king of political spending. But you have to visualize reining in a horse and know what reins are to pick the right word. 

Glodis lost the race.  The power of words?

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.