Grammar Moses: Hey, let's make hay with homophones!

  • Archive copies of the Collegiate Dictionary rest on a bookshelf at the headquarters of the Merriam-Webster dictionary publisher in Springfield, Mass., Wednesday, July 1, 2009.

    Archive copies of the Collegiate Dictionary rest on a bookshelf at the headquarters of the Merriam-Webster dictionary publisher in Springfield, Mass., Wednesday, July 1, 2009. Associated Press

 
 
Posted9/26/2021 5:30 AM

It's been forever since we explored some words that sound the same but have different spellings or meanings.

Let's start with "bear" and "bare."

 

To bear something is to endure it or carry it.

You can bear a burden, you can bear a child, but you probably can't bear the sight of a bear in your tent.

To bare something is to strip it down. But its primary use is as an adjective to describe something that's, well, naked.

You can ride bareback -- that is, without a saddle, though I wouldn't recommend it. You can bare your soul to your priest, but you probably shouldn't bare yourself to a stranger on a bus.

If you were stupid enough, you might try to bare a bear's back with a pair of barber shears. You might barely survive such an endeavor.

I remember reading once that someone "beared his soul."

Conjugation issues aside, I can barely bear my own soul. I'm not sure I could bear anyone else's on top of it.

Break/brake

Here is another pairing some people just can't seem to figure out.

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To brake is to slow and stop.

To break is to fracture something or make a whole into pieces.

If your brakes break, you're bound to end up broken.

Close, but no cigar

And now for some pairings of words that are not homophones but rather similar and often misunderstood.

Invasive/evasive

I hear people struggle with these two words.

Cancer is invasive, weeds are invasive and, in their day, Vikings were invasive. Today, the Vikings are tied for last place in the NFC North, so they're less successful than their forebears.

To be evasive is to try to avoid capture or avoid being revealed.

Job applicants with checkered pasts can be evasive in interviews. Criminals also can be evasive.

Equality/equity

Here is a real lightning rod. I see rampant misunderstanding about what "equity" means.

The two words are not synonyms.

For the sake of this discussion let's not talk about the equity you have in your home. I'm writing about social issues.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There is an illustration that expresses the difference very clearly. Because I don't have the rights to use the image, I'll have to explain.

The image that describes "equality" shows a man, a child and a toddler standing in front of a fence. A ballgame is happening beyond the fence.

Each is standing on a crate of equal size. The man can easily see over the fence. The child can just see over it and the toddler is left to stare at the fence.

In this allegory, everybody has the same tool to succeed, but not all do.

The image that describes "equity" has the man standing on the grass, the child standing on one crate and the toddler standing on two crates. With this sliding scale of tools, each is able to see over the fence and enjoy the game.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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