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Jots and Tittles: Capitol punishment.

The English language contains quite a lot of homophones, which is a very complicated word for something quite simple: two (or more) words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently, often with very different meanings.

For example, consider the words “capital” and “capitol”. Americans get these words confused very often (although some Brits are not much better), probably because of a hazy idea that they are connected with Washington D.C. You often see references to the capitol city or capitol punishment, but the word required in both cases is “capital”, with an A. The word “capitol” refers to a building in which a state legislature meets; “the Capitol” is either Jupiter’s temple in Rome, or the building in Washington where the United States Congress meets. Despite this, Washington is not the “capitol city” but the “capital city”: “capital” here meaning “main”, “important” or “extremely serious”: hence capital city, capital letter, capital punishment.

Very often, using the wrong word can make a sentence mean something quite ridiculous. If Peter waits with baited breath, that would mean that he has, for example, hooked a worm to his breath in order to attract fish. The word required here is “bated”.

Confusion of homophones appears to be on the increase. It’s always dangerous to make assumptions, but I suspect that over-reliance on spell-checkers plays a big part. Spell-checkers work simply by checking words against a list of possible words: if the word is not in the list, it is underlined and an alternative is suggested. However, spell-checkers don’t know what words mean and they can’t think: if you type She accepted the complement with good grace, a spell-checker only knows that the word “complement” exists; it has no way of knowing that it’s the wrong word here, and the word should be “compliment”.

For an extreme example, try running this through a spell-checker (set to English):

Eye wont two sea ewe inn my rheum write now. Did yew right this? Their are sew many miss takes inn it. Pleas rite it once moor.

All the words in that text are spelled correctly, and yet it is complete nonsense. This is the reason you should never rely on computers to do the job for you.

Here is a list of some homophones. English has many more to offer; this is just a random selection.

Word Definition Homophone Definition
affect (verb) to influence: “His death affected me.”
(noun) feeling, emotion
effect (verb) to accomplish, to bring about
(noun) result; the power to bring about a result: “His death had an effect on me.”
aural relating to or perceived by the ear oral relating to the mouth, or spoken
away distant aweigh hanging clear of the bottom: “Anchors aweigh!”
bated moderated, lessened baited (of a trap) made attractive by the placement of something designed to entice
breach gap; infraction: “A breach of etiquette.” breech the lower part of something
capital main, most important; severe capitol the meeting place of a state legislature
complement make whole; something that completes a thing compliment praise
desert (verb) abandon dessert a sweet course near the end of a meal
discreet careful, unobtrusive discrete unattached
forego go before forgo relinquish, do without, abstain from
grisly horrifying grizzly grey, grey-haired; however, ursus horribilis is better known as the “grizzly bear”.
hale (adjective) healthy
(verb) drag, forced to go
hail greet, salute; ice pellets as precipitation
hoard accumulation of valuable objects horde crowd
lead (noun) a base metal, chemical symbol Pb led past tense and past participle of the verb “to lead”
pore (verb) examine carefully
(noun) opening or space
pour flow; cause to flow
principal chief; of great importance (noun and adjective) principle fundamental belief or understanding (noun only)
rack put under strain; framework wrack old word for “wreck”, now only surviving in the expression “wrack and ruin”
sleight dexterity; deceptiveness: “sleight of hand” slight slender; frail
strait restricted, confined: “straitjacket” straight not bent

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