I was speaking to an international client recently and he was telling me that although he has been operating in English for his work for a long time, he noticed sometimes he wrote down the wrong English word for the context, because it was confusingly similar to another one.
For example, he wrote down ‘to sink data’ rather than ‘to sync data’. Easy mistake, especially when you are rushing & you rely too heavily on spellcheck & grammar apps. But also accidentally creating quite a funny image.
These types of confusing word groups are surprisingly common in English & are called homophones. You are probably aware of the basic ones, such as:
too (in addition/ as well as).
Same pronunciation, different spelling, different meanings. Tricky, and they catch out even advanced speakers of English, and sometimes even native speakers, to be honest!
I know that you want your English communication to be professional, accurate & natural, so I thought I would share today some common homophones found in Business English for you to focus on & avoid those mistakes in your written communication.
Insight / Incite
Insight = to have a clear & deep understanding of something, e.g. I have an insight into what products my customers prefer to buy because we have done some market research.
Incite = to encourage somebody to do something which is violent or aggressive, e.g. to incite racism, hatred or rebellion in a group of people.
As you can see, quite different words & only one is usually used in a business context!
Root / Route
Root = the cause or origin of something, e.g. the root of the problem or issue.
Route = the path, road or way, e.g. I want to take the quickest route to solving this issue.
Allowed / Aloud
Allowed = what is permitted, e.g. what we are allowed to do at the moment in the Covid restrictions.
Aloud = to speak or read out loud rather than saying it quietly in your head, e.g. please can you read the next section aloud to me.
Accept / Except
Accept = to agree or say yes, e.g. I would like to accept your job offer.
Except = to state what or who is not included, e.g. everybody is going to the meeting on Tuesday except for Harry and Sarah.
Higher / Hire
Higher = at a more high or senior position to something or somebody else, e.g. Kate is at a higher level in the organisation to Rebecca.
Hire = to employ somebody, e.g. we need to hire a new person to replace Paul as he is leaving.
Elicit = to get a response or a reaction from somebody, e.g. we have been trying to elicit their thoughts on the proposal.
Illicit = illegal, e.g. the criminal had been involved in an illicit trade in stolen phones.
You really do not want to confuse these two words!
Stationery / Stationary
Stationery = objects we use to write like paper, notebooks, pens & pencils, e.g. the stationery cupboard at work.
Stationary = not moving, e.g. I am stuck in traffic, I am completely stationary.
This one is a very common mistake!
Compliment / Complement
Compliment = to say something positive, kind or praise somebody, e.g. Ed complimented Steve on his presentation. He said it was really impactful.
Complement = to match well with something else, e.g. tonic is an excellent complement to gin.
Board / Bored
Board = as in the executive board, e.g. I will present to the board tomorrow.
Bored = how we feel if something is not interesting, e.g. Caroline felt bored with her job & wanted to explore new opportunities.
Careful not to mix these two up!
And finally, we come back to the example I mentioned at the start of this article, which my client had confused.
Sync / Sink
Sync = short for synchronise, to update or move data between devices to have the latest version, e.g. I need to sync my shared drive as I have been working offline.
Sink = where you wash up your dishes in the kitchen!
So as you can see homophones can be a confusing topic, so I do recommend you pay close attention to make sure you are using the appropriate word for the right context. Do not become over-reliant on your spellcheck or grammar apps, and sense check your writing before sending.
What other homophones (same pronunciation, different spelling & meaning) have you noticed catch you out?
I hope this is helpful, and if you have any questions at all then please just let me know. I am always happy to answer any questions that you have about this topic, other language points that you want to check, or any other questions on advanced English communication.
Victoria Rennoldson, Founder of Perfect Cuppa English
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