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Homophone? Homonym?

Most of us get stuck occasionally on deciding between 2 words and choosing the proper one--especially if the words are homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings) or homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently)--and some pairs of words are both homophones and homonyms. Or sometimes, confusing pairs may be related words that have slight differences in meaning. Not that this is a crisis for good writers, but it does make us pause briefly and make a conscious effort to choose the right word--and get annoyed at having to do so. (Of course, when really stymied, a brief visit to a dictionary will solve the problem.)

There are a large number of such word pairs and they occur rather frequently. I've tried to pick here a few that often occur in medical writing.

First, let's look at a few sound-alike pairs. The first 3 are homophones. The definitions are mine; they are not all-inclusive but are my attempt to make clear the practical differences by sometimes modifying the exact dictionary definitions.


We know that a chord, in general, is a musical sound. But sometimes vocal cord confuses us because it is associated with sound in both instances. The dictionary says a cord is a long, rounded, flexible body or organ. Spinal cord fits that description so it rarely gives us problems.


The dictionary says that breech has definitions all relating to the hind end of the body, and it is mostly used in obstetrics as breech presentation. Breach, on the other hand, means a temporary break in continuity of something or a broken or torn condition, like breach of contract or breach of promise.


A hardened or thickened area on skin or bone is called a callus (a noun), while callous is an adjective meaning, in most common usage, indifference to something personal, and, in medicine, meaning hardened and thickened. Sometimes thinking about the part of speech you are using will tell you which one to use.

The rest of this list consists of commonly confused word pairs. Principal--principle

The noun principle represents a fundamental law or rule. On the other hand, principal can be used as a noun or adjective, for example, "The principal met all the teachers," or "The principal argument was lost on the crowd."


A ruling party or political tenure or a mode of management is called a regime, as in "The regime of President Mubarak ended with the Egyptian revolt," while regimen describes a systematic plan, as "The injured man was placed on a regimen of neurological care."


The first is plural and the second is singular. Mainly, confusion arises when we write about criteria and wind up mentioning one item, making it singular or criterion.


The usual meaning of specious is showy or deceptive, or looking false. Unlike that, spacious simply means roomy.


The postmortem examination of a body is called autopsy, but biopsy is the removal of some tissue from a living body for examination and study.

Although there are some differences among authorities in the definitions of homphone, homonym, and oronym, the resultant problems--and humor--remain.

To make the point clearer, here's a poem (source unknown) that was run through a spell-checker:
   Eye have run this poem threw it
   I am shore your pleased to no
   Its letter perfect in it's weigh
   My chequer tolled me sew.

All I can add is this: Sew they're, now I no that you no how to handle word pears.

By Arnold Melnick, DO / Aventura, FL
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Title Annotation:MELNICK on WRITING
Author:Melnick, Arnold
Publication:American Medical Writers Association Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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