Common Writing Mistakes, Part 2: Homonyms!

Last month I started my blog series on common writing mistakes – the first was commas. The next most frequent mistake I see is homonyms. Below are the most common culprits… make sure you’re using the right ones!

forward, foreword
I’m starting with this one because anyone with a foreword in their book had better spell it correctly! LOL. Seriously though, when people preview your book and the first thing they see is a typo — goodbye book sale. It is a foreword. A word to your readers before the story starts.
Forward is a direction.

lying, laying, lied, laid, lay
Wow, do I see this one wrong a lot! The confusion comes from what meaning of lie you’re using, and what verb tense. Here they are:

Verb tense To lie (tell an untruth) To lie down To lay (put) something down
Present tense I lie to my parents on a regular basis I lie down I lay down the plate
Past perfect I lied to him yesterday I lay down I laid the table.
Pluperfect I had lied to her many times before I had just lain down when the doorbell rang I had laid them to rest the day before

past, passed
Past is an word that plays lots of roles (noun, adjective, adverb), whereas to pass is a verb (pass the salt, I passed my test).

Marty McFly travelled back to the past.
Adjective: In times past, we didn’t have cell phones.
Adjective: I walked past the library. My house is just past the school.

Just remember that passed can only be a verb, which means that it will have a subject right in front of it:
I passed him in the street. He passed his exams. She passed by without even seeing me. He passed out from exhaustion.

losing, loosing / lose, loose
To lose
is a verb. Loose is an adjective (describes something). The confusion probably arises because there is also a verb to loosen.
Lose means something is missing: You lose your car keys, your wallet, your sanity.
Loose describes something: my pants are loose, the rope had come loose.
Now, if you’ve tied someone up, you can loosen the rope.

The way to remember it: you are doing the losing, or loosening: I lose my car keys daily; I loosen my belt after I eat.
Loose describes something else: the bolt is loose, he has a few screws loose.
And always remember: there is no such word as loosing!

peak, peek, pique
Peek is a verb: I peeked through the shutters.
Peak is a noun: The mountain peak, the peak of his career.
Now, the sneaky one is pique, which can be a noun (meaning: a feeling of irritation or resentment) or a verb (to stimulate).
Noun: In a fit of pique, she flounced a way.
Verb: It piqued my interest.
If you can memorize those last two sentences, you’ll always use ‘pique’ correctly!

rain, rein, reign
I’m not sure why people confuse these so often; they are very different!
Rain is weather.
When you ride horse, you hold the reins. (And from this comes the metaphor of reining someone in.)
A king or queen reigns.

leak, leek
Remember, a leek is a vegetable – and nothing else! Leak is when something isn’t watertight.
The tap has a leak. He leaked information to the FBI.
She made potato and leek soup.

breech, breach
means to break something; They breached the kingdom’s defences. It was a breach of contract.

Breech is the lower or rear part of something (human body, gun, machinery).
Breeches are something you wear – on your rear! (You’ll also see it as ‘britches’).
A breech birth or breech delivery is when a baby’s feet or buttocks appear first, rather than the head.

use to, used to
There is no such phrase as ‘use to’!
I used to play hockey but stopped because of an injury.

wonder, wander
is to imagine; wander is to walk aimlessly. The confusion probably arises because of the expression my mind wandered, meaning your thinking goes off in no particular direction.
I wandered down the path. Math class was boring as usual, so my mind wandered.
I wonder if I will ever enjoy math?

vial, vile
One is a noun (a small bottle); the other is an adjective.
She held a vial of poison.
He is a vile and reprehensible person.

cloths, clothes
Clothes are what you wear; cloths are pieces of fabric that you clean with.
She mopped up the spill with several cloths.
She wears expensive clothes.

led, lead
This one is confusing because ‘lead’ is another word that can play several roles (verb, noun, adjective), and the past tense of the verb ‘to lead’ is ‘led’. Just remember, ‘led’ is always in the past. The rest are all ‘lead’.
Verb: I will lead my party to victory. Last year, I led them to victory.
Noun: Lead is a type of metal.
Adjective: He got the lead role in the movie.

four, fore
is a number.
The front and back of a boat are referred to as fore and aft.
Fore is also what you shout before you swing your golf club.

forth, fourth
Four refers to the number four: He came fourth in the contest.
Forth refers to direction (same as the previous definition) – to go forth.

trawl, troll
I’ve saved this one for last because it is a bit of a toughie – the distinction between the two is quite fine. Originally, both refer to a method of fishing. From Wikipedia: Trolling is a method of fishing where one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or bait fish, are drawn through the water. Trolling can be phonetically confused with trawling, a different method of fishing where a net (trawl) is drawn through the water instead of lines.

They also, confusingly, mean to search, but in different ways.
From grammarist: Troll for means to patrol or wander about an area in search of something. Trawl for means to search through or gather from a variety of sources.

We also use trolling to describe searching/browsing on the internet, but usually in a negative way: scammers trolling for people’s personal and financial information.

He trolled the internet for people to lure to his fake PayPal site.
She trawled through his possessions looking for something that would convict him.

And there is of course, this type of troll – but he doesn’t seem to cause as much confusion.

Troll Hominid
Troll, the noun A hominid – not to be confused with a homonym!

OK, that was a long post – but make sure you do know these! They’ll set apart a book that hasn’t been proofread properly from one that has.

Comma, comma, comma chameleon

I friend send me a link to this New York Times article about the mis-use of commas. The author does an okay job of explaining comma usage, but not a great job (probably in the interests of keeping the article short; no offence to the author!). Nevertheless, have a read of the article, and if there’s anything in it you don’t understand 100%… then you need to brush up on your punctuation rules.

Image: Comma ChameloenI do a lot of editing for authors, and without question,
THE most frequent mistake I see is the mis-use of commas. I see both unnecessary commas and comma omissions; the majority of mistakes are in the latter category.

If you’re a writer, you should own at least one grammar and style reference book. If you don’t own one, you need to get one… and read it! Admittedly it’s a bit of a dry read, but you can keep it at your desk or on your coffee table and make a goal of a couple pages a day.

A great starting place if you need a very basic grammar refresher is the OWL at Purdue website. They provide really clear, understandable explanations. Here’s their index; check out the Grammar and the Punctuation sections. There’s also  a handy little slideshow on comma usage (although the slide show doesn’t give answers to all the exercise, so you should probably read through their comma pages as well).

The second most common mistake I see is writers using the wrong verb tense. I’m alarmed by how badly understood this is; do schools not teach this any more? Well, maybe they did, and it’s just a long time since school – in which case, you may need to brush up on this, too. Again, OWL has a really good, clear explanation of verb tenses, and then you can re-read the verb tense chapter of the grammar book that sits right by your desk. Right? *wink*

I’ll be doing a more in-depth series on common writing mistakes… so stay tuned for more. And in the meantime… start taming those commas!

Stuck in the middle with ‘ou’

or: Colo(u)r Me Confused

British spellings, American spellings… what’s a Canadian writer to do?

Being not only an author, but also an editor and proofreader who works for both Canadian and American companies, finicky things like international spelling and punctuation styles are something I have to pay attention to.

It used to be simple: use the spelling of the country the book is being published in. The US edition uses American spellings; the UK edition uses British spelling; and the Canadian edition uses Canadian spelling, which is essentially the same as British except with American punctuation. (Confused? So are most Canadians.) But now with e-books, the text has to suit a global market: if you publish an e-book on, the same e-book will be available on; and doesn’t do e-books, which means Canadians are buying from… some other country. (Once again, we’re stuck in the middle, or invisible — we’re not sure which.)

With my first three e-books, I decided that because I was publishing via Amazon, my country of publication was the US, so I would use American spellings. That was before I realized that the same e-book, not a different edition, would appear on (I felt no ‘betrayal’ to my native spelling because in Canada, we’re so used to seeing both, we often forget which is which. Traveller? Manoeuvre? License? Organisation? Oh, why can’t we all just get along?)

(Side note for non-Canadian readers: some Canadians care deeply about this — why should we have to Americanize everything? — while others could care less, or have barely functional spelling anyway. But we do all feel kind of stuck in the middle. We’re supposed to use British spellings — with the exception of random words like program — but if your workplace has a US head office, then what? It’s more confusing than you’d think. I recently edited a report for a Canadian hospital, and when I asked them if they wanted to use Canadian or American spellings, they enthusiastically replied “Canadian!” But then when I changed words like fetal, pediatrician, anesthesia to foetal, paediatrician, anaesthesia, they later changed them all back. I don’t think they quite understood the question.)

Back to my story… as my books appeared on more and more e-tailer sites, I realized I had no way of predicting what nationalities my audience would be. (I have fans in India — how cool!) My next book, The Frankincense Trail, was historical fiction, and for some reason I just didn’t want to see this book with American text; I’m not sure how to explain why. So I went back to Canadian.

Then I realized (realised? Oh, here we go again!) the main problem with this: most e-tailer and review sites are American, and when they feature the back blurb of the book, it appears to have typos in it. Even the spellcheck on my blog keeps redlining my ‘mistakes’. And while Canadians are very familiar with the dual-spelling issue, and most Brits are aware of it, I’m not sure whether most Americans even know about it… which means they’ll see my spellings as ‘mistakes’ rather than some quaint tradition of their neighbors/neighbors up north. And believe me, people can be really hard on self-published books… as if there has never been a typo in a traditionally published book!

To wit, one of my books was slammed in an online review for being “full of typos”. That flummoxed me at first; I could see one or two typos getting by both me and my proofreader, but many? My proofreader has an English Lit degree from Cambridge!

Cambridge — aha! That was when I realis/zed what was going on.

So now I’m wondering… what do the rest of you Canadian authors who are e-publishing do? Which program(me) do you favo(u)r? And for you readers out there, do you notice, or care? Were you even aware that different spellings existed?

Let the comments roll in… I’m eager to hear your thoughts!