One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.
In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:
Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.
Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.
Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.
Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.
Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.
Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”
Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.
Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.
Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.
Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.
Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.
Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.
Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”
Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.
Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.