September 6, 2007

I bear some responsibility for a mistake that appeared in a column by
my colleague and editor, Mallary Jean Tenore. In her informative piece
on Twitter
, she wrote “carrot” for “caret.” A couple of readers
took the stick to her and Poynter for not making the catch. Mea
culpa. I didn’t see it when reading a draft of the piece, and could not have distinguished a
“caret” (^) from a mathematical “less than” sign (<) — which looks
like a prostrate caret to me. (Or is it “prostate”?)

We all know (no?) that homonyms or homophones create confusion, error
and misunderstanding. Even those of us who decades ago mastered
“there, their and they’re,” and “to, two and too,” and the ever fatal
“its and it’s” will at times confuse them during hasty and automatic

But homo-nym-phobia should extend to experienced writers using
sophisticated language. I remember the day I used the word
“discrete” (distinct) when I meant “discreet” (prudent). At the time, I
did not know
they were different words with different spellings, both derived from
the same Latin root “to separate.” I felt bad about it until I
was on a panel of writing coaches, not one of whom knew the
difference. I did not understand any difference between “hone”
(sharpen) and
“home” (advance towards a target) until I wrote “hone in” in the St.
Petersburg (Fla.) Times
. Readers beat me with a stick, and I felt bad until two
minutes ago when I discovered that the American Heritage Dictionary
accepts “hone in” as an acceptable variant of “home in.” Go

I’ve had cataract surgery but still have to look up the word to make
sure — for the 10th time — that the optical meaning has the same
spelling as the high waterfall. (The word history here is
fascinating: cataract, meaning “a great downrush” derives from a Greek
word that also means “portcullis,” a gate that drops down, which became
the metaphor for the cloudy covering for the lens of the eye.)

So, for the record:

A caret is a proofreading symbol (^) that derives from the Latin verb
“carere,” meaning that something is missing or lacking. (Not to be
confused with the “less than” sign <, which can become a caret but
only if you’re reading with your head sideways on the pillow.)

A carat is a unit to measure precious stones, spelled “karat” when
measuring gold. Derived from an Arabic term meaning “the weight
of four grains.”

A carrot is, of course, a bunny’s favorite food, supposedly good for
the eyesight and, metaphorically, a reward that, when it comes to corrections, is often more effective than the stick. Which is why
I always prefer the emoticon shaped like a heart <3 (or a big
behind) to a frowny face 🙁 from a copy editor. (“Roy, there you go
again. There’s no such word as ‘frowny.'”)

Do you have any examples of homonyms you’ve confused in your own work?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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