The Homophone Issue

March 4th, 2014 by David Leave a reply »

Do you try to ‘rein in’ or ‘reign in’ an abuse of power? If you chose the latter, you are incorrect–but you have good company. More people seem to be falling prey to incorrect usage of homophones (words that sound the same) as the original meaning of words and phrases fades from memory.

The confusion in this case stems from the assumption that since a monarch has a reign of power, one might seek to ‘reign’ him or her in. But the original phrase comes from horse riding. If you’ve ever ridden, you know that it takes some work to rein in a horse with a head of steam–it’s an apt phrase. Similarly, giving something ‘free rein’ (deriving from letting the horse choose its path) is often mis-used as ‘free reign’. (Continuing with an equine theme, when you are excited you are said to be ‘champing at the bit’, not ‘chomping’ as many people assume.)

If the ultimate goal of writing is communication, not much is truly lost when an incorrect homophone is used–the reader will probably know what you mean. But when the homophone substitute has nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase I believe we are diminishing the English language. And once a mistake begins to be commonly made, it spreads like a communicable disease. The next thing you know, serial commas are virtually eliminated from usage, its and it’s are used interchangeably, and nouns are turned to verbs.

Whoops, we may already be there!

But we CAN remember to compliment someone who complements us with their presence, re-sign the player who we thought had resigned, and above all keep a tight rein on our word choices.



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