Your Not Their Yet?

Nope, you’re not “there” if the title of this post doesn’t jump out at you like a hopped-up kangaroo – in this case, “there” referring to the correct spelling of a handful of increasingly (and erroneously) swapped homonyms*: there, their, and they’re, plus you’re and your. You have arrived when you’re able to choose and spell them as follows:

“There was tension in the air as the sitter said, ‘You’re going to be in big trouble, kids, if you  don’t stop  your mischief. Your parents will be home in a minute, and they’re not going to like what you’ve done to their room.’”

Misspellers are doubtlessly aware of the homonyms’ meanings, but that doesn’t mean the words aren’t worth defining. For casual spellers, the definitions serve as a reminder of how very different all of them are. Said homonyms, one-by-one:

     there As an adverb there can mean “at, in, into, or toward  a place,” as in “Phil loved Hashop’s Drugs, stopping there often for a Coke float.”). As a pronoun it introduces a sentence or clause: “There was reason to believe Phil had a crush on Kathy.”

     their The possessive form of the pronoun they: “Their dates went from soda-sharing to movies at the Hillside Drive-In.”

     they’re Contraction of they are: “They’re some of the most talented musicians around.”

     your Possessive form of the pronoun you: “Your eyes look even greener when you wear that scarf.”

     you’re Contraction of you are: “You’re cruising for a bruising if you speak ill of Will.”

The key to keeping the words straight is giving some thought to each as you write it – a pipe dream for a lot of people in this day and age, but a way to get THERE orthographically intact.

*For similar mix-ups, see Hazardous Homonyms in Spellcheck.

Hazardous Homonyms

Homonyms are accidents waiting to happen: words that sound exactly the same yet differ in their spelling and have meanings that are miles apart. Such mix-ups are so common these days it sometimes seems as if half the population doesn’t quite understand that, when writing, we go over there but stay out of their way; like your style but think you’re too picky; dress with flair but ignite a flarepore over a book but pour a glass of water; try to rein in a horse but reign over a kingdom (or, say, a competitor); and wait with bated breath to see if we’ve been baited by a too-good-to-be-true advertisement.

Worse, legions of copyeditors and proofreaders have ridden off into the sunset and left even our leading publications peppered with misspellings. A decade ago, would the New York Times have allowed such lapses to make their way into the paper? Not likely. But in the past year or so, the misspellings below were among the several that appeared in the online edition and will stay put in print editions for the long haul. (On the other hand, to my knowledge no newspaper goes to greater lengths to correct errors both typographical and factual than the Times, and in a timely manner.)

  • gate  for gait
  • palette for palate
  • mettle for metal*

Other homonym mix-ups pop up like weeds in a vacant lot, among them discreet for discrete; phase for faze; capital for capitol; principle for principal; compliment for complement; and hair for hare. I’d like to think that many people simply slip up and then fail to double-check their scribblings… but how many bother in a day when spelling and grammar take a back seat to speed? Also, the more some misspellings appear, the more likely they are to be seen as correct – worrisome for Wordies but apparently not that big a deal for the average Joe or Jane.

Sound-alike Snags

Keeping company with hazardous homonyms are similar-sounding terms just waiting to be confused. Too often heard and seen are the likes of elude for the correct allude; squash for quashjive with for jibe withhurdle for hurtlewreck havoc for wreak havocdribble for drivelbold-faced lie for bald-faced lie; conscious for conscience; could of for could have; theirselves for themselves; and cachet (ca- as in “cat” plus SHAY) for cache (pronounced CASH). Then there’s the wholly off-base flushed out for fleshed out. An all the more woeful mix-up is hone in for home in, and the TV talking head who gets this phrase right is a rare bird. My jaw dropped when I heard one cable regular refer to a homing pigeon (a pigeon able to find its way home over vast distances) as a honing pigeon (a pigeon trained to sharpen blades?)

Does your jaw occasionally drop too? Or do you see mix-ups of this ilk as no cause for alarm? Way in (oops! Weigh in) if you please, as we mull over this burning question.

*See Metal vs. Mettle.