Self-Editing: Homonyms & Synonyms

Okay, you’ve been writing for a while now, and you’ve conquered the usual “when to use a period” and “to, too, two” problems.  It’s time to take your copyediting skills to the next level.

So here are some persistent problems I’ve seen even experienced professional writers fail to overcome and simple ways to deal with them.

Homonyms

Even the latest version of Microsoft’s spellchecker doesn’t often catch when you put a correctly spelled but wrongly selected word in your sentence.  Not much will help you when you write “verses” (sections of a poem or lyric) instead of “versus” (as opposed to) except paying close attention when you read and memorizing the difference.

But sometimes we do know the meanings of different words that sound the same and still mix them up.  The best way to deal with these is making sure we understand just why we get confused and how to choose between our options.

Mixed Patterns: Read vs. Lead vs. Head

Most words follow some sort of pattern, such as using “-ed” for the past tense.  When they don’t follow the main pattern, then they follow some lesser pattern, such as using “-t” for the past tense (e.g., dreamt, slept, burnt, knelt).

You can even use these patterns to understand things that don’t seem at first to make sense, such as the word “pass,” which has a past tense that ends in either “-ed” or “-t.”

I pass the ball to John.  It helps pass the time.

John passed the ball back to me in times past.

But there are some words out there that just do their own thing, and these need to go into a special pocket in your brain.  There is no rule of thumb, just the bare need for memorization.

By far, the most common error I see along these lines is using “lead” as the past tense of “to lead.”  However, the past tense is “led.”

John liked to lead when he danced.  John led Jane around the dance floor.

Writing “lead” as the past tense of “to lead” is to confuse the rules for the word with those of “to read.”  And it makes a kind of sense, considering that they make the same auditory change: long e for “to lead” and “to read” and short e for “read” and “led.”

In fact, “to read/read” is the odd duck.  Look at “to breed/bred” and “to feed/fed.”

It’s helpful to remember that “lead” sounds like “led” when it means a type of metal.  Bear in mind that when “lead” is a noun, it functions like “head”, “bread,” and seed” when it’s used as a verb: “to head/headed”, “to bread/breaded,” and “to seed/seeded.”

Thus, gasoline that has had the lead taken out is “unleaded.”

Beware other words that seem to follow similar patterns and be sure to memorize their usage individually.  Examples include:

  • To drink, drank, drunk vs. To swim, swam, swum (I can be drunk, but I can’t be swum.)
  • Left vs. Right (I can be righted, but I can’ be lefted.)
  • Lie, lied vs. Lie, lay, laid (I lie to my friends and I lie on the grass, but I lied to my father yesterday while I lay on the sofa.)

False Etymology

Etymology is the study of word origins, and it’s pretty cool.  But it’s also full of bad calls.  One of the most famous screw-ups was the idea that “satire” came from “Satyrs,” the man-goat creatures of ancient Greece who appeared in light-hearted plays.  For quite a while, satires were published with little goat-men on the pages, and satirists themselves were portrayed as magical, snarky little beasts.

However, “satire” actually comes from the Latin lanx satura and roughly means “hash.”  What we call satires today were published in Rome along with other poems that addressed various bits of information and foibles of the enemy.

Real etymology requires extensive research.  When we decide to figure out a word or phrase through common sense, we run the risk of making up a connection between words that doesn’t exist.

The most common error I see along these lines is “peaked one’s interest.”  The thinking seems to be that one’s interest hits a high point, and thus “peaks.”  Actually, the word is from the French, pique, meaning “to arouse.”  So it “piqued one’s interest” and conveys the idea that something has caught one’s attention, not brought you to some sort of climax of intrigue.

Another common one is saying “deep seeded interest” instead of the correct “deep seated interest.”  Having something “deeply seeded” seems to make sense, as in “deeply rooted.”  But think about it.  A seed put too deeply into soil just won’t grow, and roots grow down from the seed.  Many a mighty tree starts off as a seed just lying there on the ground.

However, being “deeply seated” actually indicates that something is thoroughly emerged or anchored, and that’s the meaning we’re going for.

Again, there’s no real rule you can follow for when etymology will make sense and when it won’t.  You just have to be alert for phrases you’ve often heard but not often read and look them up rather than trying to figure them out.

Apostrophes

Interestingly, the most common homonym mistakes I see involve apostrophes, and yet this is one of the few times English grammar actually follow a hard and fast rule:  the apostrophe goes to the contraction.

  • Their = Possessive
    There = Indicates a Place
    They’re = They Are
  • Its = Possessive
    It’s = It Is
  • Your = Possessive
    You’re = You Are
  • Whose = Possessive
    Who’s = Who Is
  • Lets = Allows, rents (to let)
    Let’s = Let Us

Synonyms

Mistakes in using synonyms  come from two sources: improper use of a thesaurus and just being too clever.

The one and only time to use a thesaurus is when you already have the word you want in mind, but can’t think of what it is.  You can find it by looking up a similar word in a thesaurus.  Otherwise, if you look up a word you know to see how else you might say it, you run the risk of using a word you don’t really understand.

Think of the word “excited,” for example.  Good, useful synonyms include “aroused”, “inspired”, “upset”, “accelerated”, “awake”, “energized”, “evoked”, “inflamed”, “offended”, “stirred up,” and “titillated.”  Poor use of a thesaurus can lead to all of the following:

  • The process will offend electrons within an atom.
  • Jane was so inflamed by her birthday party she cried with joy.
  • The happy, titillated children raced around Chuck E. Cheese.

It’s not enough simply to recognize the word.  You have to be familiar with it, know its meanings and associations – especially its associations.

And while this sort of problem is most often associated with ESL and college freshmen, native speakers on their own turf will stumble onto this error when they’re tired of repeating words in situations where words just need to be repeated.

Take “said,” for example.  A quick way to spot an amateur author is to watch them get tired of “he said” and “she said”:

“I’m going out,” he said.

“I’m going out too,” she said.

“I need money,” he said.

“I have some,” she offered.

“That’s great,” he chuckled.

“Here’s a twenty,” she sighed.

“I won’t lose it,” he assured her.

“I know,” she laughed.

“I’m going out with Stephen the Smelly,” he sneezed.

“Oh?” she inquired.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“Bleh,” the reader rejected.

As a reader goes through dialog, the “saids” will just fade into the background on their own.  Constantly calling attention to variations on the word just gets distracting.  Besides, people might laugh when they’re speaking, but they’re not really laughing/giggling/chuckling the words.

Words have weight and significance, poetry and color.  In truth, any time you find yourself “substituting” one word for another, you’re in trouble.  Even “big” and “large” have different uses.  Each word should be deliberately chosen because it’s the best possible choice for what you’re trying to say.

Else, you’ll unearth yourself pronouncing things you on no occasion designed to articulate!

When all else fails, hire a good editing service that employs experienced book editors or dissertation editors to help you out!