Homophone Phobia

Homophone Phobia

first published, 9/24/2005 4:56:24 PM
This has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
   
My youngest son, who was nine at the time, came home one day with the dire news: he’d all but flunked a spelling test, a never-before-seen occurance in our house. He wailed, “It was the homophones that confused me!”
  
Even though the teacher had read off a sentence indicating which word she was looking for, my son had spelled the wrong “version” of the word. We talked about it, and about the fact that he hadn’t studied the spelling words (which was the real crux of the matter), and he assured us it wouldn’t happen again.
  
So, what does this have to do with writing?
  
Everything.
  
One of the problems I see constantly in fan fiction is poor word usage, especially in the area of choosing the proper “version” of a homophone (homo = same, phone = sound). Words such as plain and plane, your and you’re, rain, rein, and reign all sound the same to the ear, but they are spelled differently, and as such, mean different things. And unless you are very careful, or have an excellent betareader, you can be really tripped up by them.
  
Why?
  
Because spellcheckers are stupid, that’s why!
  
A spellchecker can tell you if a word is spelled correctly. That’s all. It can’t tell you if your word is the right one to use in a particular sentence. That’s where a betareader comes in.
  
Now, there are some circumstances where a writer can save himself or herself even without the help of a betareader, especially in the case of contractions.
  
How?
  
By reading your text out loud and substituting the definition of one of the words wherever you see it.
  
For example: if you have trouble, as I do, with the personal pronoun “its” versus the contraction “it’s” (it is), you can read your text aloud, and wherever you see “its”, say “it is”. If it doesn’t make any sense, then change it. If it does, you know you’ve got the right word.
  
This can work in many different ways. For example, use “shower” for “rain”, or “correct” for “right”, or “also” for “too”. With a little work, you can catch a lot of those pesky homophone errors before you send your chapter off to the betareader.
  
And you really need to read the text aloud. Why? Because it slows you down, forces you to really look at the words instead of glossing over something that you may have already read visually several times and are sick of seeing again. It also helps you hear if you’ve got the characters’ voices right in your dialogue.
  
Print the chapter out, so it’s easier on the eyes, then use a red pencil (or a green one or a purple one, just as long as it stands out against the black text) and make notes of your corrections. You don’t have to know proofreader’s marks to do this, although knowledge of that arcane shorthand wouldn’t hurt. You can write in the margins, between the lines, whatever floats your boat. But don’t let your work go to the betareader until you do.
  
Yeah, I know betareaders are supposed to catch these things, but it’s your work. You need to put forth the effort to make it as error-free as you can. And betas are human; they aren’t necessarily going to find all your errors. Besides, doing this will clue you into which words you’re having trouble with, so that when you continue with your writing, you can be actively thinking about them and can catch yourself before you make the mistake.
  
Just a bit of practical advice to help you along the way.

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