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You're Saying It Wrong IV: The Homophone Edition

Updated on August 3, 2018

Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume VII

Many usage errors in English happen because the language is full of homophones. Homophones are a set of words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. We can see several in this example: “Two friends of mine are coming to my house; would it be too hard for you to come, too?” Two, to, too, to, and too all have different meanings, even though they all sound identical. The first is a whole number, greater than one, and less than three. The second is a preposition indicating movement in the direction of its object (in this case, my house). The next is synonymous with excessively. The next one is the English infinitive marker, which in many other languages is not a separate word at all. The final instance of our homophonic example is synonymous with also. We can tell the difference between the homophones in speech by listening to the other words the speaker is using, that is, by listening to the context. The problem is that while contextual clues help with a word’s meaning, they do not help us at all when we’re trying to guess at the same word’s spelling. It gets even worse when you consider that the wrong choice is also a perfectly good and respectable word, which will pass your spellchecker with flying colors, but still make you look silly when others read, “He one the race with to seconds too spare.” If you’re talking, homophone confusion will never be a problem. But if you’re writing, and if you’re overly dependent on your spellchecker, it can be a bit of a worry. This installment of “You’re Saying it Wrong” is to help prevent spellchecker betrayals from making folks look silly.


People Say, “It’s The Same Principal.”

They Mean, “It’s The Same Principle.”

Here’s why:

These homophones are very closely related. They have the same Latin root, which is also where we get the word Prince. Knowing only this, you might conclude that both principle and principal probably denote something pretty important. You’d be right.

Principle is always a noun. It means a rule of conduct, a general law of science, or a central point of doctrine. We can talk about someone having good moral principles, for example, or the principles of chemistry, or the principles of Taoism.

Principal, on the other hand, is fundamentally adjectival. It means most important, first, or highest in rank. The confusion comes from the general use of principal in place of the noun it’s meant to be modifying. In theater, the leading man and leading lady are often collectively called “principals” instead of “principal performers.” The chief administrator of a school is called the principal. Money that you initially invest or borrow (as opposed to any dividends or interest paid) is called the principal. And so on. Through long usage, principal has become more of a noun than an adjective, and it’s even now slowly losing its adjectival function. This being the case, we can’t fall back on the “one’s a noun and the other’s an adjective” rule. It won’t work. So I’ll ask you to remember the difference by imagining that the person in charge of your old high school really wanted to be your pal.

People Say, “Sight Your Source.” (or, “Site Your Source.”)

They Mean, “Cite Your Source.”

Here’s why:

Sight is your ability to sense things with your eyes. It is also the thing you look through when you aim a gun. It’s also a verb, meaning to calibrate a gun’s aiming thing, or to notice, as in, “While hiking, Bob sighted a rare bird.” It can also mean spectacle, as in, “That’s quite a sight to see.”

Site means “place,” and like place, it can be either a noun or a verb. For example, you can’t site your camp on a construction site without getting in the workers’ way. It’s related to the word situation.

Cite has many meanings, and two of them are almost opposites. It can mean to list, as in, “The professor cited several reasons to major in business.” (This usage has become so uncommon that it can almost be called archaic.) Most confusingly, it can mean either to commend, as in, “At the ceremony, the soldier was cited for bravery,” or to censure, as in, “On his way home, he was cited for speeding.” But in the usage we’re discussing here, cite means to show where you got your information. If you make an extraordinary assertion, it’s to be hoped that you will be expected to cite the source of your information before people believe you.

Sadly, I don't have a good mnemonic for this one; you’ll just have to remember which cite you need when you want to prove something.

People Say, “Bare With Me.”

They Mean, “Bear With Me.”

Here’s why:

They both look wrong, don’t they? The first bare means “unclothed,” (or “uncover,” as in “the dog bared its teeth,” since it can also be used as a verb) and the second bear means “a big furry critter that can eat you.” But bear also means “carry.” You may have seen an online discussion about the right to bear arms. It’s the same bear. You can also bear children if you’re a fertile woman, or bear fruit if you’re a tree. Idiomatically, bear is also used to mean suffer or endure, as in, “The strain was more than he could bear.” This is the idiomatic meaning of “bear with me.” The speaker is saying that he, too, is bothered by the delay, or the technical difficulties, or whatever is going wrong. He is suffering along with you, and is appealing to your sense of solidarity: we can bear these problems together.

Probably the only place you would hear someone say “bare with me” would be at a nudist camp, which isn’t very likely. Remember the correct usage by thinking that it’s easier to bear hardship when you’re not naked.

People Say, “Meet Justice.”

They Mean, “Mete Justice.”

Here’s why:

Most people don’t use the phrase mete justice anymore, but the verb mete does occasionally get dusted off when talking about distributing a limited supply of something, as in, “The lifeboat’s captain carefully meted out the remaining water.” You might be tempted to conclude that mete is related to meter, as both have a measuring connotation. You’d be nearly right. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that meter (meaning the Metric system’s basic unit of linear measurement) comes to us from French, which got it from Greek, while mete comes to us via a very convoluted route through Old English and the various Germanic languages that influenced and were influenced by it, from its ultimate source in Greek. But the Greek ancestor of meter is μετρον*, while the Greek ancestor of mete is μεδιμυος.

The fact that mete is so archaic is probably the reason for people incorrectly substituting meet (which has many meanings, none of which have anything to do with measuring or distributing). But we have plenty of useful non-archaic synonyms for mete, like dole, or deal (both of which, like mete, are usually followed by out) or distribute. If in doubt, don’t use mete. Most readers will enjoy your work more without it. But if you’re writing about knights in shining armor, and you try to make the king say, “I give you the power to bear arms and meet justice,” well, I hope you remember this article, or else have a human being proofread your draft.

*Don’t ask me how to pronounce them; I’m illiterate in Greek. I only recognize that they’re two distinct, but vaguely similar words.

Uriens grants Arthur the power to bear arms and mete justice at about 1:07.

People Say, “Populous”

They (Usually) Mean, “Populace.”

Here’s why:

Both words ultimately come from Latin, and are related to popular and population. Like popular and population, one of this set of homophones is an adjective, and the other is a noun. Their meanings all have to do with people (another related word), which adds to the confusion. Populous is the adjective. It means, “with lots of people in it.” Detroit used to be considered a populous city (and it's becoming populous again). Populace, on the other hand, means, “the people who live in a given place.” Mayor Bing has appealed to Detroit’s remaining populace to stay in the city.

Populace is nearly synonymous with population, but is usually used when talking about people as a group of individuals, whereas population is more of a statistical term. We would (probably) not say, “The mayor spoke to the population,” but rather, “The mayor spoke to the populace.” It’s a rather fine distinction, but it’s there.

Populous is, as mentioned, an adjective, and is nearly synonymous with, but sounds nicer than, crowded. The –ous is the giveaway. It can be found on all kinds of adjectives, like venomous, glorious, curious, nebulous, enormous, and tedious.

If you can substitute the phrase “the people,” use populace. If you’re describing a place where a lot of people live, use populous.

People Say, “Baited Breath.”

They Mean, “Bated Breath.”

Here’s why:

Bated breath is another phrase that’s falling out of use, but it still appears every now and then, misspelled by folks who ought to know better. Usually it’s said of someone who is eagerly or anxiously waiting for something, like this: “He waited for the announcement with bated breath.” I’ve even run across a (bad) joke that uses the confusion, but it’s only funny if you know the correct usage. Here is the joke:

My cat likes to eat cheese and then sit outside the mouse hole, waiting with baited breath.

Told you it was bad.

The joke is that mice supposedly like cheese (at least, cartoon ones do), so the smell of the cheese on the cat’s breath would be like bait. But the bated in the phrase bated breath means something entirely different.

Bated is short for abated, which means stopped, or interrupted. You may have heard a form of the word in a sentence like, “In spite of the presence of refugees, the artillery barrage went on unabated.” So if you’re waiting with bated breath, you’re holding your breath in anticipation.

Future Fun with Grammar and Usage

The next installment of You’re Saying it Wrong will probably deal with folk etymologies, like “it takes two to tangle” (which I’ve already discussed in an earlier article). Thinking about the future, though, I was wondering: do you have an arcane grammar or usage problem that you can’t seem to keep straight? Is there a particular mistake that drives you crazy when people do it and you’d like to be able to explain why it’s wrong? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email through my profile page. If I use your suggestion, I’ll be sure to mention your name (or handle) in the article.


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