The Homophone Hordes

Is your interest peaked by the free reign given to a rampaging hoard of homophones? Do you pour over newspapers looking for them?

In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed misplaced homophones creep ever more readily into newspapers and magazines. Given two words that are spelled differently but sound alike, professional writers are using the wrong one noticeably often. First came the use of the phrase “free reign” rather than “free rein” – we’ve reached the point where a Google search for the former returns more results than the latter. And now “reign in” is starting to replace “rein in” too.

This habit is spreading to other homophones used in the first paragraph: “hoard” for “horde”, “peaked” for “piqued”, “pour” for “pore”. No doubt there are others.

Coin hoard
A Viking hoard is something you want to find; a Viking horde, not so much.

We could blame this on the shift from a written to an oral culture, in which people hear words more than read them, but radio and TV have been around for decades. The explosion of public blogs written by non-professionals fits the timing better—except that we see these mistakes in the professional print media, too.

I’m guessing the more likely cause is human proofreaders being abandoned in favour of cheaper automatic spell-checking. It’s quite possible newswriters always made these mistakes, but proofreaders caught them before they went to press. Spell-checking software, however, recognizes these homophones as words and ignores them—or, worse, offers the wrong word as the first option in a correction.

But why do some homophone substitutions, like those above, stand out from the many others possible in the English language? I suspect the answer lies in some similarity of meaning between the two words, so that the incorrect word almost makes sense in the context.

Rein and reign, for example, both imply some sort of control (of a horse, of a kingdom). Horde and hoard both describe a large amount (of horsemen, of treasure). Pique and peak both evoke a point (of a spear, of a mountain). “Pore over” and “pour over” both suggest covering something (with attention, with liquid).

The correct versions are also increasingly unfamiliar—horses (rein, horde) and spears (pique) are now old technology, after all, and “pore” is traditionally used in relation to books, which we are often assured are also heading out the door. When writers gravitate towards the more familiar word and it still appears to have some kind of logic, the mistake is made.

Are these misplaced homophones really a problem? After all, word usage changes over time. But I’d say they are because, although seeming kind of similar, the incorrect word skews the meaning and the grammar of a sentence. “Is your interest peaked?” is not quite right, and also implies a meaning quite different from “is your interest piqued?”.

I’m not sure if we can rein in the homophone hordes, but piquing people’s interest in the problem is a good first step.

About the author

Dylan Reid

Dylan Reid (@dylan_reid) is a co-founder and senior editor of Spacing Magazine and a Fellow at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto.

1 comment

  • Excellent article! I have groaned over the [incorrect] use of words like “reign” and “peaked” almost as much as I deplore the ubiquitous “their”/”they’re” and “it”/”it’s” confusion in so much that I read these days. Thanks for reassuring me that I’m not crazy.

By Dylan Reid