Better Language Through Unicorns, Part 2: Tricksy Homophones and Sneaky Spelling

One of the most annoying things about the English language is its abundance of words that sound exactly alike but have different spellings and meanings. Other words have similar meanings an even sound slightly different, but are spelled differently for different parts of speech. Some of them are easy enough that most of us will never mix them up, but others are much harder to keep straight. Let’s see if the unicorns can help us remember these rules once and for all.

Affect vs. Effect

I probably see these switched up more often than any other pairing on this list. For the most part, affect is a verb and effect is a noun… except when affect is a vaguely pretentious noun and business-speak turns effect into a verb. Gah. As a verb, affect means to change or have an impact on, while as a noun it can be used in a formal sense to discuss someone’s outward display of emotions. Effect, meanwhile, usually means the result or impact that took place, but it can be used as a verb meaning to bring about an effect. (“Will it affect the outcome?” = “Will it change the outcome?” vs. “Will it effect the outcome?” = “Will it bring about the specific outcome we want?”) Also, unless you’re using some serious academic language to talk about emotions, you should pretty much always use effective instead of affective.

  • Don’t be fooled by the unicorn king’s dignified affect. He knows his demeanor is an effective way to affect how others perceive him. The effect of his noble bearing is that he can inspire others to greatness, and if he wants to effect a change in their behavior, he needs only to let the facade slip.

Principle vs. Principal

I wish I could remember which book I read as a kid in which a character explained that he, the principal, was the students’ pal, because that has stuck with me ever since. Aside from applying to school administrators and other people in leadership roles, principal can also refer to an initial investment or be an adjective meaning first or most important. Principle, however, is always a noun and refers to rules or fundamental truths.

  • The principal of Unicorn High refused to invest any money in the Pegasus Corp. After looking over their principal strategy, he feared losing his principal if their stock price plummeted. (He also disliked those winged horses on principle.)

Capital vs. Capitol

I admit, I have to stop and think about this one every time. Capitol refers only to the building where legislators meet (and should be capitalized when referring to the one in Washington, D.C.), while capital is used for every other meaning, including the city that’s the seat of government, uppercase letters, wealth, awesomeness, and other assorted usages.

  • What a capital idea! Let’s take the unicorns on a field trip to the capital and tour the capitol building. They can ask the legislators about their positions on the capital gains tax and capital punishment. 

Lose vs. Loose

Lose is always a verb that has various meanings that more or less come down to not having something anymore. Loose, however, is usually an adjective meaning free or not tight, though it can rarely be used as a verb meaning to set loose. Along with their similar spellings that can trip you up in print, they’re also pronounced slightly differently, which is just awesome if you say the wrong one.

  • Crap, I managed to lose sight of the unicorns after I loosed them from their field. Oh wait, they’re running loose at the base of that hill.

Premier vs. Premiere

Another pair that trips people up pretty frequently; premiere means debut, like of a new TV show, while premier means best or highest quality (and is also the title of high-ranking government officials in some countries).

  • The unicorns are eagerly awaiting the premiere of a new Broadway musical about them. The premier is sitting with the royal family in the premier location with the best view of the stage.

Heroine vs. Heroin

Two very different meanings that you really don’t want to mix up! Heroine is a lady hero, while heroin is a drug.

  • The heroine of our anti-drug crusade says, “Unicorns should never use heroin!”

Oy vs. Oi

I see these get mixed up all the time in historical fiction and it bugs me every time that not a single editor caught the mistake before it went to print. Oy is a Yiddish word to express annoyance or chagrin, while oi hails from the UK and is used to catch someone’s attention (equivalent to “yo!”).

  • Oi! Did you just completely ignore the herd of unicorns that ran by? Oy vey, you are such a schmuck.

Palate vs. Pallet vs. Palette

Here’s another one where I’ve seen errors sneak into published books from people who should know better. Palate refers to taste or the roof of the mouth, a pallet is a makeshift bed or the wooden platform that has launched a thousand Pinterest projects, and palette is a range of colors or the board an artist puts paint on. (Confusingly, pallet is also an acceptable spelling for the artist’s board, but palette looks fancier and Frenchified, so go with that.)

  • Unicorns have quite refined palates, though I burned my palate when I shared their dinner. I guess I’ll go make up a pallet in the stable so I can wake up bright and early, grab my paints and palette, and join their morning art class; we’re learning about choosing a harmonious color palette.

Check back next week for even more grammatically correct unicorns! And if you missed last week’s lesson on when pronouns need apostrophes, you can review it here.

Note: This is for personal edification and entertainment only. Don’t be a dick about people who misuse these or any other words, especially on the internet — you have no way of knowing if they have a learning disability, made a simple typo, or just got screwed by autocorrect.

(Unless they’re making these mistakes while ranting about how everyone needs to speak English in ‘merica or are otherwise being an ignorant hypocrite about language usage. Then you have my permission to tell them how very wrong they are on all levels. With gusto. Make the unicorns proud!)

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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