I recently read a book that was a good story that I enjoyed and felt that, generally, it was well-edited, except for one thing: There were a handful of instances of using the wrong homonym. These are usage errors as well as technically a spelling error. Alert readers will notice and roll their eyes, not a reaction you usually want directed toward your work.
Bear and bare are often misused! My first thought is that bear is the animal and bare is a synonym for naked. So far so good. But what about to bear arms, meaning wielding a weapon, versus bare arms, like in a sleeveless dress?
I dare you to look up bear in the dictionary. What about to bear a child? What about its past participle, born? Then there’s bearing. How many different definitions does that have, from bearing a burden to the component in your car?
Then there’s another slant on bare, being the adverb barely.
There are dozens of homonyms in the English language just waiting to trip you up. I’ve harped on this before and will continue to do so as long as I find them, especially in otherwise well-written books. These nasty alligators in the water aren’t caught by your garden variety spellchecker, so it’s up to you as an author to distinguish between them and use them correctly.
Know the difference between they’re, there, and their; your, you’re, and yore; flare and flair; bare and bear; alter and altar; hanger and hangar, just to name a few. If you consider yourself a professional writer or editor it’s your job to know such things!
Avoid adverbs and adjectives whenever possible. For example, rather than saying, He walked slowly say, He strolled or He dragged his feet. Using exactly the right word brings clarity and moves the story along more quickly. Verbs are powerful; use them properly and they strengthen your writing. This contributes to the Show, don’t tell admonition which allows the reader to experience the story as opposed to simply observing it. For example, which of the following is more effective?
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that before,” Sally said sadly.
Sally’s eyes filled with tears and her chin quivered with emotion. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that before,” she whispered.
Use active voice and subjective case. In other words, say, He threw the ball as opposed to the ball was thrown by him.
Avoid using the same word more than once in a paragraph. This is something my senior lit teacher told us in high school. Of course there are exceptions, but often when you need to repeat a word it’s a signal that you could reword the sentence in a more concise way. For example:
Sharon saw the pantry was empty so she went to the store to get some groceries. When she got to the store she bought bread, eggs, milk and sauerkraut.
Seeing the pantry was empty, Sharon went to the store to buy bread, eggs, milk and sauerkraut.
Flashbacks are often a source of confusion for the writer as well as the reader. The convention is to begin a flashback with past perfect tense, e.We had started that day with the usual cup of coffee. If you want you can use it for the next sentence as well, particularly if it’s going to be a fairly long sequence. Then when the flashback ends, you close it again with past perfect, i.e.I had thought at the time that it was a good idea, but time had shown otherwise. You can also include a simple statement such as He returned to the present….
There are numerous words out there that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently which are called homonyms. Examples include here and hear; whole and hole; where and wear; your and you’re; you’ll and yule; there, they’re, and their and a host of others.
In the past few weeks I have seen the word shudder used incorrectly in two different books. The meaning of this word is to shake or vibrate; it is not the word for those planks designed to cover or sometimes decorate windows; that word is shutter like in shut. Another one I’ve seen misused in an otherwise excellent book is the word reign. This word relates to authority, such as “the queen’s reign.” To restrain or limit is the word rein, like the straps used with a bit to control a horse. The most common seem to be your (possessive) and you’re (contraction for you are) and they’re (contraction for they are), there (a place) and their (plural possessive.)
Nothing shows your ignorance as a writer faster than getting these different words mixed up. Many readers won’t know the different, I’m sure, but it’s really our responsibility as writers to provide correct usage and set the example for what appears to be an increasingly semi-literate world.
Of course now that we have autocorrect messing with our best intentions sometimes it’s not entirely your fault if they show up. Furthermore, if your keyboarding skills are advanced your fingers may tend to spell incorrectly from time to time. I have that problem where I know (not no) better but when I really get on a roll (not role) they often turn up (not turnip). That said, you’re (not your) going to have to pay attention and do your (not you’re) best to at least know (not no) the difference between them so you can correct them when you see (not sea) them. If you tend to read over your own mistakes then please, by all means, hire a good editor. Readers who know the difference will appreciate it.