#HomophoneHell: Bear and Bare

I see this error so often in both edited and unedited work, I have to write about it. As usual, it’s something I never had trouble with, so I have problems understanding why it’s so hard to get it right. I’m mean like that. However, I’ll do my best to explain. I’m helpful like that, too. Continue reading “#HomophoneHell: Bear and Bare”

Past due? You passed the deadline.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, because you’re smart people. Here’s another Homophone Hell pairing: past and passed. One’s a modifier or preposition or noun, the other a verb form. And as I was reminded late yesterday, they’re evil for some people. Let’s see if I can help.

Past can be a modifier, a preposition, or a noun. As a modifier, it can denote a time (“the past year,” where it’s an adjective because it modifies a noun) or a position of a verb (“a robin flew past the window,” an adverbial use telling us “where” as part of the prepositional phrase “past the window” modifying “flew”). As a preposition, it also denotes a position, but explains a time or place (“the shadows reached past the fence to the outer edge of the yard” [there’s that adverbial use again, telling “where”] or “be ready at half past eight”).

Passed is the past tense of the verb to pass. (Note “past” in “past tense” — an adjective use.) “She passed her classes with B’s and C’s this term.” “The car passed that semi illegally.” “He passed away last year from complications caused by an infection.”

I don’t have a handy, brief, catchy mnemonic, but I will leave you with this:

She was so busy writing about her past, the dinner hour passed her by.

Always. ALWAYS.
Always. ALWAYS.


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!

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.


In days of . . . you’re? No . . . your? Nope . . .


Here’s another by-request post, the subject of which you’ve already guessed. (I’m sure of this. You’re smart people.) I know I did a usage tip about this within the last year, but it’s been lost to the sands of time (and Google), so . . . once more into the breach, dear friends.

Your. You’re. Yore. Two of those are personal pronouns. One is a noun. (And, honestly, I don’t see the noun confused for the pronouns very often, myself — but the issue was brought up, so I’ll discuss it. That’s how I roll.)

Your is the second-person singular and plural possessive pronoun. “Watch your step.” It denotes a thing belonging to “you,” whether “you” is one person or many people. (I’ve written before about “thee/thou” and “ye.” Modern English has no separate second-person singular pronoun. “Thee/thou” went out of style. It’s all you, as they say.)

You’re is the contraction for “you are.” (I know you all know this, too, but I’m something of a completist so I’m saying it all again.) The apostrophe replaces the “a” from “are.” When you see an apostrophe, you can be sure the word is either a possessive or a contraction. (There are a very few exceptions to this, but that’s a different post, I think. I don’t want to muddy the waters here.)

Yore is a noun meaning  “time past and especially long past.” (Thank you, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.) Nowadays it’s often used in a mock-nostalgic sense. It is also noted as being “chiefly literary.” In other words, you aren’t likely to find it in an article in Time Magazine. Interestingly, yore was an adverb in Middle English, but a noun in Old English. I’ll let you poke around on the internet and find out the details for yourselves if you’re so inclined.

I’ll also note here that I’ve never gotten a request about your/you’re that included “yore” from a US writer — only from those in the UK or Canada (so far). I’m not sure what that says, aside from “US writers do not appear to be prone to using the word yore.”

In days of yore, your daily bread was made from grain you grew yourself. You’re in a much better position today, I dare say.

Let’s shoot the chute!

I have to say this isn’t a very common error, at least in my experience stalking the wild typo. In the coffee aisle (not isle) at the local big box department store, next to the pricey “designer coffee” with its own grinder, I spotted this sign.

Maybe it’s missing a comma?

In fact, this is such an uncommon example I stood there for a few seconds while my brain processed the information. I wasn’t in “editing mode” during this part of our trip, admittedly. Usually that mode is always engaged and running in the background. The delay rather unnerved me, truth to tell. However, once I realized what I was seeing, I snapped a photo for posterity (and you, kind readers) because it was just too good to pass up.

As for my caption: I did come up with a rather unconventional correction that could conceivably make sense. Kinda. A little. Okay, not really, but it amused me to think of it. “Slide bag behind, shoot to activate lever.” Nice comma fault, that way, isn’t it? A semicolon makes better sense.

Or, we could just–y’know–use the correct word. “Chute.”