Why Be Homophone-Phobic?
‘Homophone’ is the somewhat unfortunate term that refers to two or more words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Whether or not you’re a fan of what they’re called, homophones are popping up everywhere, in Facebook posts, in student work, even in stories on Medium.
The essays by students in my graphic design class for college seniors, for example, were thoughtful and insightful. But their spelling was… creative. As just a few examples:
“They wanted me to rain in my creativity.”
“He challenged American consumers to think outside the isle.”
“I couldn’t bare reading about him.”
“They waved the requirements.”
“I need to take a brake between undergrad and grad school.”
“She presented her solution with flare.”
“I don’t know weather it’s a good idea to team up with other students.”
“Our profession has reached its peek.”
But those errors didn’t make me as crazy as the ones in the 25 self-published novels I was asked to read and critique for a fiction-writing contest sponsored by a well known writers’ magazine. Among many misspelled words, I came across these doozies:
“It was only a bolder, a small island.”
“I needed to sew my wild oats.”
“Nothing breeches my territory.”
“He would play an important roll in my life.”
“Fine,” she agreed, pulling a small vile from her bag.”
Well, it was a story about a drug addict, so it might have been a vile vial. To get some background on why homophones are so problematic, and how to avoid using them, I spoke with Ruth Nathan, Ph.D, author of notable books about teaching reading and writing. Ruth is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and consults to leading educational products companies.
ES: Ruth, why are there so many homophones in English, and why do they pop up, even in good writing, so frequently?
RN: An interesting aspect of the English alphabetic code is that most phonemes (sounds) in English can be spelled several different ways. This is partially due to changes in English pronunciation and spelling over time, as well as the incorporation into everyday English of thousands of words from other languages, both ancient — such as classical Greek and Latin — and modern, including Spanish, French, and Russian. English can be very tricky.
ES: Right. There’s more than one spelling for almost every sound in English. And it can be so confusing. Especially for writers for whom English is their second language. Spell-check doesn’t catch them, so we have to be careful. We all know about ‘there,’ ‘their,’ and ‘they’re,’ and watch our ‘two’ and ‘to,’ ‘too,’ right? But what about ‘pair’ and ‘pare,’ ‘break’ and ‘brake,’ ‘reel and real,’ as just a few examples. Sometimes mixing up the two words can have inadvertently comical results or connote opposite meanings. A friend who teaches university sociology told me that her grad students have mixed up ‘raise,’ to lift up, with ‘raze,’ to tear down.
RN: We just have to learn them. In childhood, if possible. Children learning to read English need to discover, early on, that many vowels and consonants — the two kinds of letters that make up the English alphabet — have alternative spellings; that is, the same sound is spelled more than one way. For example, the vowel sound of long a, as in acorn, can be spelled nine different ways, including a–e as in sale, ai, as in ‘sail’; –ay as in ‘play’; and eigh as in ‘eight.’ Languages like English with different sound-spellings are considered ‘opaque,’ a fitting word since ‘opaque’ means ‘unable to be seen through.’
Some languages, like Spanish, Finnish and Italian, generally have one spelling for each phoneme. Those languages are referred to as ‘transparent,’ which means that there is almost always a one-to-one correspondence between each individual sound and its spelling.
This simple phenomenon is why learning to read transparent languages is so much easier than learning to read English and other opaque languages like German.
ES: So you’re saying that there’s no magic elixir and that spelling patterns must be learned.
RN: Yes. Although English is opaque, everyone needs to learn the frequent letter patterns that represent single sounds. For example, the ten vowel patterns for long i as in ‘ice’ include ie as in ‘pie’ and igh as in ‘high.’ Consonant patterns, as another example, include spelling /f/ as ‘ph’ as in phone and gh as in ‘laugh.’
And there are rules. For example, ‘c’ followed by ‘a’ is pronounced /k/ as in ‘cat,’ but ‘c’ followed by ‘e’, ‘i’ or ‘y’ is always pronounced /s/ as in ‘cell.’
It’s important for students to ultimately move from thinking that each letter represents a single sound — which we teach beginning readers using CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words with short vowels — to understanding that patterns of two, three, and even four letters that represent one phoneme are frequent, and they need to be both expected and learned.
After all, we only have twenty-six letters in a language with nearly fifty sounds.
ES: When in doubt, look it up, I’ve learned the hard way. You can google “homophones,” a fairly definitive list will come up.
RN: Just as meaningful reading depends on automatic—quick and accurate—word recognition, good writing depends on knowing and reaching for the right word. To get students off to a good start, teachers, including parents teaching at home, of course, can use products like these Big Letter-Sound Cards, which display alternative spelling patterns with examples on the back of each card.
ES: Thank you, Ruth, for your helpful insights.