For each of the following sentences, try to spot the look-alike/sound-alike error: an inappropriate word that closely resembles the correct one:
- Here's some good advise for students who want to find the perfect internship.
- Visit a lake you're unfamiliar with, and you'll immediately realize you'd better do your homework if you want to hook the illusive rainbow trout.
- Another survey of 256 people who had been divorced at one time or another asked, "What was the principle reason you got a divorce?"
Let's see if you spotted all three mistakes.
In the first sentence, we need to change the verb advise (recommend) to the noun advice (guidance). In number two, let's replace illusive (another word for illusory) with elusive (tending to evade capture or avoid perception). And in the third sentence, how about changing principle (basic truth or rule) to principal (most important). (And before you write in about this last one, please see Why the Principal Is Not Our Pal.)
It's not hard to see how even a professional writer might slip up now and then when using such similar-sounding words (called homophones). (All three sentences have been drawn from the blogs of experienced wordsmiths.) Our spell checkers will never catch the errors, and our eyes and ears can't always be trusted.
But to have any hope of correcting such mistakes, we first need to understand the different uses and meanings of homophones. As Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
To help you find the right word, we've prepared these three guide sheets with exercises: