A Word, Please: You'll be loath to mess up homophones

If you think your shoes compliment your outfit, we need to talk. No, not about fashion. You probably have a better sense of that than I do. It's mental health that we need to discuss.

You see, shoes can't talk, and if they could, they would probably focus on issues closer to the ground — for example, foot hygiene and the hazards of sidewalk gum.

Absurd as the idea of talking shoes may be, otherwise sane people make statements like this every day. The absurdity is caused by the one-letter difference between "compliment" and "complement." The former means to make a flattering remark. The latter means to round out or complete, the way a well-chosen wine is said to complete a meal. So shoes complement, not compliment, an outfit.

Writing errors occur on many levels. There are the egregious mistakes that prove the writer truly doesn't care — stuff like, "Their are several luau's to choose from." There are the ultra-arcane mistakes that are undetectable to all but the most informed grammar buffs — stuff like, "Unable to buy the textbooks he needed for the course, Joe's grades suffered."

(In case you're wondering, that is technically a dangler. To a really picky person, it means that Joe's grades were unable to buy books — not Joe himself.)

But in between the painfully obvious and the impossibly abstruse — well, these in-between errors are the worst because the people who make them are trying to write well. And a good chunk of those errors we can clump in with "compliment" and "complement" under the label of "frequently confused words."

"Lead" gets confused a lot. As a present tense verb that rhymes with "need," it's fine. As a noun that means a metal and rhymes with "bed" it's fine. But too often people use "lead" as a past tense, as in, "After we arrived, one thing lead to another."

Yes, the proper past tense of the verb rhymes with the metal "lead." But it's spelled "led."

Here's an error I spotted in an online U.S.News & World Report article: "As long as seniors vote in large numbers and support lobbyists in Washington, politicians will be loathe to make major cuts in retiree benefits." Oops.

"Loathe," according to most dictionaries, is a verb meaning to hate. "Loath" is an adjective that means reluctant or resistant. That's the one they wanted.

If something doesn't faze you, you don't want to spell it "phase." And if something piques your curiosity, that's not spelled like a mountain peak.

"Forego" is fumbled as often as not. If you're aiming to use the most proper English, the one with the "e" means to go before. To mean eschew or do without, you want "forgo."

If you get something in your sights, that refers to the sight of a gun, which is not spelled like the location, which is "site." And only if you sell bicycles can you pedal your wares. Everyone else peddles theirs.

A principle is a value or a concept. It should not be confused with a main thing, like the principal of a school or the principal of a company. And if you fall in with a clique at school, note that it's not spelled click.

The pronoun "whose" confounds a lot of people. But it's easy when you remember that the alternative, "who's," can only be a contraction of "who is" or "who has." So "Who's coming and whose car will they take?" shows correct uses of both.

And finally, "let's" is a contraction of "let us" that's used as an invitation. Without an apostrophe, it's the third-person singular conjugation of the verb "to let," as in, "He really lets his hair down at night."

June Casagrande is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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