Humbled by homophones

(Not homophobes, people … seriously!)

Even when he calls me on an error, I always love hearing from judge and master cruciverbalist Vic Fleming. Anyone who loves words as much as he does is someone you should heed.

No, Vic would never be this snide ... he's too nice for that. But he is also very funny. Image found on Art of Thinking Smart.

No, Vic would never be this snide … he’s too nice for that. But he is also very funny.
Image found on Art of Thinking Smart.

In this instance, the error was in the original source, but that doesn’t excuse me, especially being the word nerd that I am. Here’s what I wrote, which included a quote from an interview published on FirstDraftNews:

“Though Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post closed shop on her ‘What Was Fake on the Internet This Week’ column, she told Craig Silverman (founder of Regret the Error), ‘I don’t want to suggest that anyone should throw in the towel on this, because it’s obviously a principle function of journalism to correct misinformation.’”

Did you catch the error? A lot of people wouldn’t, thanks to the confusion of homophones (words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings).

Even the professionals who know better sometimes miss it. I certainly did, but at least I wasn’t alone.

Try explaining principles to Donald Trump. Image found on They Call Me Swift.

Try explaining principles to Donald Trump.
Image found on They Call Me Swift.

It should be principal (the adjective) rather than principle (the noun). Of course, principal is also used as a noun, but its meanings in that capacity are linked to its adjective definition (“most important”). Principle, however, is simply a noun, the main meaning of which is, according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, “a fundamental idea or general rule that is used as a basis for a particular theory or system of belief.” Yes, “principled” is an adjective (in case you were about to zing me), but it’s not spelled exactly the same (so there).

For those still confused, Oxford says, “If you’re unsure whether to use principle or principal, try thinking about the context. Generally speaking, a principle is a rule, standard, or belief of one kind or another. As an adjective, principal means ‘most important,’ while a principal is—generally speaking—a person who is most important in a particular organization or group.”

Skin-NER! 've always wanted to say that ... Image found on Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.

Skin-NER! I’ve always wanted to say that … I’m easily amused sometimes …
Image found on Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning.

Seems clear enough, but then homophones and their cousins, homographs (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciations, such as bass [a very tasty fish I grew up eating] and bass [deep tone]) and homonyms (words that share the same spelling and pronunciation, but have different meanings, such as rose [flower] and rose [past tense of rise]) just have to muck up the works.

This was one of the few mini roses I've found that actually has a scent. Alas, this one died a couple of years ago.

This would be the flower rose, not the other one.

It’s enough to drive even word nerds nuts. That could be why you can sometimes hear a frustrated scream emanating from downtown Little Rock any time someone uses “free reign” instead of the correct “free rein.”

You might think it would be obvious which one is correct … that is, unless someone has never seen a horse. (And don’t get me started on “bridal” and “bridle.”)

The proper rein, along with other bits of tack. Image found on Oxford Learner's Dictionary.

The proper rein, along with other bits of tack and body parts. Note that it’s “flank,” and not “ass.”
Image found on Oxford Learner’s Dictionary.

Oxford surmises that society (in general, not the preteen girls who are equine-obsessed) has become so distanced from real-life horses that such equestrian-related terms have lost much of their meaning: “Nowadays, the concept of a monarch’s reign seems to have more immediate relevance to us than the reins used to control a horse. This misinterpretation is most clearly apparent in the phrase ‘free rein.’ To give a horse free rein is to hold the reins loosely so as to allow the animal freedom of movement—it’s the opposite of keeping a tight rein on the horse (controlling it closely).”

And in case you were wondering, no, I wasn’t one of those horse-crazy girls, and haven’t been on one of the beasts since I fell off one when I was a kid.

Sorry, Liz, you're not the boss of us. Image found on Daily Mail.

Sorry, Liz, you’re not the boss of us.
Image found on Daily Mail.

Oxford notes that lexicographers have traced the rein/reign mix-up to the 19th century, when horses were still prevalent in our daily lives. The first known occurrence of “free reign” was in an 1834 edition of an American book on children’s diseases.

Yep, it appears an American (perhaps a royalist in hiding?) could be to blame for what sounds like a Freudian slip.

Didn’t we fight the Revolution to free ourselves from the reign of kings? I always thought the founders bridled at their treatment by the monarchy, but …

Yes, I deserve to be punished for those puns …


As an editor, I'm amused and horrified by this one ... and I want to know where it is so that I might find $50. Image found on JudiciaryReport.

As an editor, I’m amused and horrified by this one … and I want to know where it is so that I might find $50.
Image found on JudiciaryReport.

Those aren’t the only errors that sneak in. Completely wrong words that aren’t homophones or their kin sometimes make it in, which is embarrassing all around, though more for us on the Voices page.

The last letter we printed from Karl Kimball contained an inadvertent error, introduced in the process of typing it into the system: “The 20th century in particular is lettered with millions of deaths brought on by various types of socialist governments.”

Now, THIS movie I'd see! (Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.) Image found on Tickld.

Now, THIS movie I’d see! (Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.)
Image found on Tickld.

Since “lettered” was spelled correctly and was only one letter different from the correct word, none of us who read it before it was published registered it as being incorrect, our brains telling us it was the proper word, “littered.” (More of that typoglycemia, dang it …) Sorry about that, Karl.

Leave it to the brain to make us look like fools. Really, we’re not … most of the time. Ignore whatever the furry one may tell you; he’s just ticked that I won’t give him any of my dinner.

If only a reliable contextual spell-check was standard in all word-processing and editing platforms, we’d be eating a lot less crow. I’d much prefer the bass. Oooh, and hushpuppies … a little lemon juice …

I'm still recovering from food poisoning, but I really want this right now ... too bad you can't get it unless you catch it ... Image found on Me So Hungry.

I’m still recovering from food poisoning, but I really want this right now … too bad you can’t get it unless you catch it …
Image found on Me So Hungry.