She left him at the alter

Well, no. She left him at the altar.

This particular pair of homophones is one of the most troublesome, based on what I see come across my desk. Perhaps I can provide some helpful hints for telling them apart, so you’ll know which one you should be using in a given situation. We’ll see . . .

An altar is a raised surface, first of all. It could be a simple table, or a flat rock, or perhaps an elaborately constructed piece of furniture with storage space underneath, hidden behind doors or curtains. But I digress. An altar is a surface on which one puts ritual items, for the purpose of then enacting said ritual. I’ll wager most of you readers are familiar with the altar at the front of a church (Catholic, Protestant, doesn’t matter — churches have altars). I’ll also wager that a number of you are equally familiar with the pagan analog, usually set at the center of the ritual space. (Not that I’d know about that or anything . . . ::cough::) If you’re writing about a ritual, you’ll likely need to use the word altar.

Altar can be used figuratively, as well. They worship at the altar of freedom.

Alter is foremost a verb, meaning to change something. I say “foremost,” because there’s also the psychiatric usage meaning “a distinct and separate personality” when talking about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder [MPD]). She has fifty-four alters. However, unless you’re writing a piece on DID, you’ll probably be using the verb form and talking about something being altered. Think of “alterations” made to clothes by a tailor or a seamstress. They alter the clothing.

Alter is also the verb used to mean “to spay or neuter an animal.” The procedure changes the animal, so that it can no longer reproduce.

Alter is also the word in “alter ego,” meaning a different side of a personality or even a close friend who holds the same views as one’s own. It’s important to note, I think, that this is the common usage; we can all have alter egos, but not be diagnosed with DID. It literally means “second I.” Drinking brings out his alter ego; he’s quite the Jekyll and Hyde.

It will probably help to remember that “alter” is part of “alternative” and “alternate.” If you need a word that denotes change, something different from the expected, you want alter.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to alter my altar setup for the upcoming feast day.

It ain't fancy, but it's a mighty fine stone altar.
It ain’t fancy, but it’s a mighty fine stone altar.

The Beatles had it right — for a pun, anyway

Today’s tour of Homophone Hell visits several words: core, corps, corpse, and corp (the latter properly styled Corp.).

Why the Beatles? Some readers will recall the company founded by the Fab Four in 1968: Apple Corps. “Corps” is pronounced like “core,” and we know what an apple core is, right? The name’s a wonderful pun on that, in addition to playing on “Corp.”, which is short for “corporation.” More on those two later.

“Core” isn’t the real issue here. I very seldom see this one misused in print. Apparently it’s pretty easy for folks to grasp all around: the core of the matter, a reactor core, etc.

Now, to the problem children.

“Corps” is the word you see when someone talks about the full name of the U.S. Marines: The United States Marine Corps. It’s not an abbreviation. That’s the whole word, right there: corps. It’s also used in the Peace Corps and Job Corps. “Corps” isn’t always capitalized: The press corps was kept waiting for three hours while the Congress threw spitballs across the aisles at one another.

Say “core” when you see “corps,” and know that it means either an organized part of the military, a military group with two or more divisions (in the technical military sense of the word), or a group of people involved in an activity (that’s the press corps). It’s not the Marine Corp., unless you’re talking about a company (Marine) that uses “corporation” in its name (Corp.) — and then you’d say “Marine Corporation.”

“Corps” and “Corp.” seem to be the biggest problems, based on my experience as a copyeditor. (I’ll blame the words, not their users. It’s kinder to all concerned.)

Then we have “corpse.” It’s pronounced as you’d expect: korps. It means a dead body. While you might think it is a homophone for “corps,” it isn’t. (Or, think of it the other way around: “Corps” isn’t a homophone for “corpse.” Whichever way works for you is how you need to think of it.) While dead bodies are certainly offensive to some folks, the word “corpse” isn’t a big offender in this particular arena — I seldom see it misused.

All right, then. “Core” and “corps” are homophones. The latter means an organized group (military or otherwise). “Corpse” is pronounced with the final -s aspirated (meaning it’s a hissing sound). And “corp” isn’t correct unless it’s styled “Corp.” and is used instead of “Corporation.”

Now I think it’s time to check on the press corps, and perhaps send a few nasty emails to the Exxon-Mobil Corp. while I’m at it. Better yet, I’ll pack up some apple cores and ship ’em off to my representatives. They didn’t earn fruit baskets this year.

He’s a real loose canon

An email last week reminded me of this particular bit of Homophone Hell: canon and cannon.

The correct word for the titular phrase is, of course, “cannon.” You know what cannons are. They’re those enormous guns, sometimes on ships, sometimes on the ground. They’ve got a wicked recoil when they fire, too. And on a ship, they had to be fastened in position or they posed even more of a danger because they could run a sailor over, being “loose cannons.”

So in our phrase up there in the title, what is “canon?” Well . . . substituting the definition for the word makes a sentence that’s utter rubbish. “He’s a real loose general law or criterion, or a collection of sacred books accepted as genuine.”

Likewise, if you talk about Star Wars canon or Star Trek canon or Whovian canon, you want the one-n spelling. You’re talking about the corpus of information that’s accepted to be the basis of those shows, the core, the “rules” if you will. “That fanfic isn’t canon, and I won’t read it.” It’s not cannon, either, but that’s beside the point. I suppose it could become ammunition . . . naah.

Dean Hamilton wrote a great blog post about these two words over at Tyburn Tree. (And it was his email to me last week that reminded me of this little trip into Homophone Hell!)

And of course, there really is a Loose Canon. Here’s a picture of it. You can get it for yourself over at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!
An actual Loose Canon with copyright and everything!

Are horses and kings alike?

Hey, folks. This is another one of those discussions where there’s a mostly right answer to the question, but not a wholly definitive one. (Not to my mind, anyway. I know what I prefer, but that don’t make it right, as they say.) And that makes it especially fitting for Homophone Hell, because . . . there’s no way out. ::cackles::

The title should have clued you in pretty well. Is the phrase “free rein” or “free reign?” The answer is “yes.” (I sighed heavily as I typed that, just so you know.)

“Free rein” comes from the equestrian realm. It’s a rein held loosely, giving the horse relative freedom (until he’s reined in). The phrase can be applied to other entities as well, not just horses. A manager may be given free rein to make her own decisions, until her superior thinks she’s gone too far — at which point he reins her in.

“Free reign” is the alternate wording, and there’s a great discussion of it here at Daily Writing Tips. It discusses the process of conflation between “rein” and “reign” clearly, and give supporting evidence in the form of search-engine hits. “To reign” means “to wield the power of a king” — I can see how some folks made the jump from giving a horse (or a person, or a corporation, or a whatever) its freedom to do what it wants, but . . . anyway.  I won’t rehash the entire post. I will, however, offer the ending quote of the original post (there’s an addendum), with which I fully agree:

“I shall continue to write ‘free rein,’ but free reign is here to stay.”

::heavy sigh::



Do you complete me, or are you just being nice?

We’ll continue our tour through Homophone Hell today with complement and compliment. Technically, there’s a slight difference in the correct pronunciation of each word, but in practice they sound virtually identical.

“Complement” has to do with completing, making whole, or improving something.  Here are two examples of it as a noun: “Those pumps are a perfect complement to her suit.”  “The baby was born with less than the usual complement of toes.”  And here it is as a verb: “This dusting of glitter complements the winter scene on the card better than a smattering of sequins would.”

“Compliment” is also a noun and a verb, and it concerns saying nice things or the things being said. Here, it’s a noun: “I know you said my eyes reminded you of a Brown Swiss cow’s, but I didn’t take that as a compliment.” (Note: She should have. Cows have lovely eyes.) And in this sentence, it’s a verb: “The next time he compliments her eyes, he’ll know better than to use a farm animal in his wording.”

It will probably help to remember that “complete” and “complement” both contain e’s but no i’s, and that “compliment” and “nice” each contain an i and an e.

A compliment about the gift you received is a good complement to any thank-you note you write.




Sneak a peek at that peak to pique your interest

Well, I suppose you know what this post is about now, don’t you. We’re descending into homophone hell today with that terrible trio, peek/peak/pique.

Peek means to look quickly, usually surreptitiously and often from some kind of hiding place (like behind a curtain or around a corner). “Take a peek and see if Mom’s home yet!” There are two e’s in “peek,” and two e’s in “see” and in “eye.” That might help you, as a mnemonic.

Peak means the top of a mountain, or (as a verb) to reach the highest point of (something). “The Dow peaked at 14963.82 today at close of trading.” (Okay, it hasn’t closed yet today, but that’s where it sits right now as I write this post. That’s also not a peak, since it’s off by over 100 points . . . but I digress. The usage is correct, even if my facts are outright wrong.) There’s an a in “peak,” and an a in “mountain,” too. There’s also an a in “stand,” and you can stand on top of a mountain peak. One of those is bound to work as a mnemonic for peak.

Pique means to stimulate or irritate, as in to pique one’s interest in something or to be piqued by something. “He was quickly piqued by her rudeness to the waiter.” There’s an i in “pique,” and there are i’s in both “stimulate” and “irritate.” See the pattern to my mnemonics? Of course you do.

So . . . offer your readers a sneak peek into your next work. Dream of the day your career reaches its peak, and hope that it doesn’t decline too swiftly for you to enjoy the ride. And, if it does tank, don’t be piqued.