Words that are pronounced the same way but have different meanings are known as ‘homophones’. Often, as well as sounding the same, they are spelled the same too, such as ‘rose’ meaning both a flower or the past tense of ‘rise’. You may have come across homophones before, but what is a heterograph?
Sometimes, two homophones are not spelled in the same way. These have a specific name – heterographs – and they can be a real source of embarrassment for writers.
We come across a lot of heterograph confusion here at the Online Learning Academy, and we’ve picked out five of the most troublesome:
1. Stationary vs. stationery
If something is not moving, it’s said to be ‘stationary’. ‘Stationery’, meanwhile, is the collective term for writing implements, such as pens, pencils and notebooks.
A good way to remember this small but important spelling difference is that envelopes begin with ‘e’, and they are a type of stationery.
2. Compliment vs. complement
If you are saying something pleasant about somebody or something, you are paying them a ‘compliment’. This spelling is often wrongly used to describe, for example, how well a glass of wine can elevate a meal to perfection.
Of course, an inanimate drink is not able to compliment food; instead, it ‘complements’ it.
3. Wreak vs. reek
As an editor, the phrase ‘reek havoc’ is something I have seen rather often over the years. If taken literally, it would refer to some kind of very dangerous and chaotic scent.
‘Wreak’ and ‘reek’ are both verbs, but the former means ‘to inflict or cause’, while the latter means ‘to smell strongly’.
4. Sight vs. site
Despite the ubiquity of websites, this one still gets mixed up surprisingly often.
A ‘site’ is a location, either in the physical world or in cyberspace. ‘Sight’ is one of our five senses.
5. Rein vs. reign
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen writers accidentally pen the idiom ‘take the reigns’. The phrase actually alludes to the reins used to control a horse, not the ‘reigns’ held by monarchs, politicians and other powerful figures.
There is, of course, a third heterograph here – ‘rain’. However, this is such an everyday word, it rarely causes confusion.
Even experienced writers are sometimes stumped by these meddlesome words, and the best way to get past them is to train your brain to instantly recognise their misuse. Our Business Blogging for Beginners course includes countless tips on how to make sure your writing makes a great impression rather than a bad one by falling for these traps.