Wither the weather?*

(*With thanks to my trusty Canadian Oxford English Dictionary)

Snow blanketed the streets of Toronto earlier this week, which engaged more people in the popular Canadian sport of complaining about the weather.

Since I do most of my travelling by subway, rather than car, I was unperturbed by the white stuff, but all the talk of weather turned my mind toward homonyms: those words that sound alike or are spelled alike, but have different meanings. Like weather and whether, for example.

Homonyms can be tricky, and many a user stumbles when typing them into an email or writing them onto the page. Unfortunately, there’s no easy remedy, except to be aware of them and check the dictionary when you suspect you may be using the wrong word.

Frustrating, but true –and the English language is full of them! For anyone who is not a native English speaker, it can be even trickier.

If you’re uncertain that you’ve caught all of your possible errors or you know that homonyms are your weakness, ask a friend or a colleague to read through your document to avoid embarrassment.

Although it would take pages to explore them all, let’s look at a sampling of the homonym traps that await the unsuspecting writer:

  1. Weather and Whether: The first is a noun that refers to the state of the atmosphere; the second is a conjunction – or a bridge word – that expresses doubt or choice between alternatives.
  2. It’s and Its: This is a pet peeve of many an editor. It’s is a contraction that means It is; its is a possessive adjective meaning belonging to it, whatever the “it” may be.
  3. Wear and Where: Wear is a verb that means to be dressed in; where is an interrogative adverb that means “to what place”?
  4. Read and Reed: The former is a verb meaning “to look at and understand the meaning of written or printed words,” while the latter is a noun referring to a water or marsh plant.
  5.  Till and Till: As a verb, till means “to prepare the soil for planting,” while as a conjunction, till is a form of until, meaning “up to the time when,” as in Till the cows come home.

Is your head spinning? Are your eyes rolling? It’s (not its) no surprise – and it’s enough to make anyone wish they had paid more attention in elementary school English class!

But, soldier on. Mistakes are often the best way to learn.


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