Write Them Right. The Truth about Homophones.

What are homophones, you ask? They are words that sound alike but have different meanings and are spelled differently.

Few things stab a reader between the eyes like a misplaced homophone. Homophones are words that you have to train your brain for, because spellcheck will always think they’re fine. Because they are.

But they’re not. They’re very much not.

Now, I know y’all know the easy ones. Your mind will tell you when you’ve typed “knew” when you meant “new.”  The too, two, and to trio are also pretty simple to spot. Sometimes, we just type the wrong one.

But we don’t always know for sure, right?

One such uncertain homophonic trio that I see rather too much of, online, is the their, they’re, there group.

Their:  This is a possessive pronoun. Used as an adjective to describe ownership. This is their website. That is their house.  Their office hours are nine to six.

There:  This is a word often used to show a place and/or distance.  The phone is over there on the table.  I’m never going to make it there.  It’s also used like this:  There’s a light in the window.  This is to tell the place, but it can be used with indeterminate objects as well.

They’re:  This is a contraction for the words “they are.” If “they are” is not the meaning you’re going for in the sentence, this is not the proper form of the word to use.  They’re leaving on Monday.  They’re buying a new house. I don’t know if they’re on vacation.

And of course, the deadly group of peek, peak, and pique.

Here, I really believe that many fine writers just don’t know what words mean when they use them erroneously.

Peek:  See the two “e”s? Think of them as eyes. “Eyes” has two “e”s as well, right?  This is the word that has to do with seeing something.  Taking a peek into a room. Having a peek at the test. That kind of thing.

Peak:  This is the pinnacle of something.  The peak of a mountain.  The peak of her career. The peak of one’s energy.

and lastly…

Pique:  As a noun, it is a feeling of irritation or resentment.  You’ve heard of the alternate title for the Grapes of Wrath? It’s the Prunes of Pique.  Get it?  As a verb, it generally means to stimulate interest.  He piqued my curiosity with the mask.  My interest was piqued by the first paragraph.  I’m trying to pique your interest, dammit!

Another pairing of homophones that is sometimes goofed online is navel and naval.

Navel:  This has to do with one’s bellybutton, usually.  Sometimes, it can refer to the central point or middle of any thing or place.  He has a navel fetish. She has a navel piercing.  We prefer navel oranges. 

Naval: This has to do with ships. Warships or peacetime. It also concerns an actual Navy. I study English naval battles. The main employer here is the naval industry.

In short, there are many homophones that are frequently confused for one another.  They should have name tags, but that’s not an option when one is writing, so you really just have to learn them.  For a more comprehensive listing of these tricky words, I refer you to, of course, a website:  http://www.homophone.com.


LJ Summers is an experienced editor and a writer. With degrees in English and Ministry/Theology, she likes to consider herself a good student.  She believes strongly that good solid research combined with an active imagination will yield a great story. Her interests span the spectrum from ancient battle techniques of European Celts to modern internet phenomena. She welcomes visitors to her website: http://sandyquill.com

Deconstructing You and Me… Or Is It I?

Have you ever used the phrase “Between you and I”? How about “Between you and me”? Which one do you think is right?

If you said the latter, then you are correct. If you said the former, then please read on.

A common hypercorrection [see bottom] is to use the pronoun I at all times when talking about oneself and someone else. Examples:

You and I are talking about grammar.”

“It has always been between him and I.”

“Leave she and I alone, please.”

Just like with any other pronouns, coordinated noun phrases are inflected based on what position they take in the sentence (e.g. if they are objects or subjects). The foolproof way to check if a coordinated noun phrase should be nominative or objective is to replace the coordinated noun phrase (X and I/me) with the appropriate personal pronoun in the plural (we, us, our/ours) or check which case it gets with just the 1st person singular (I, me, my/mine).

  • I & we is nominative and is the subject (replaces X and I)
  • me & us is objective and is the object (replaces X and me)
  • my/mine & our/ours is possessive (this is a little more complicated and will have to wait for another article)

Let’s check this with a few sentences (excuse me while I abuse Glee for these examples; they happen to have a lot of both good and bad examples, and I already had this data set lying around):

“It’s got everything that both you and I love.” — Rachel Berry, season 2, episode 4.

Modified: “It’s got everything that I love.” ORIt’s got everything that we love.”

Looking good, right? “You and I” are the the subjects, because “You and I” are doing the loving.

“He and I are singing a duet together.” — Kurt Hummel, season 2, episode 4.

Modified: “We are singing a duet together.”

Totally works. “He and I” are the subjects, as they are doing the singing.

“You’re probably not gonna beat Finn and I.” — Rachel Berry, season 2, episode 4.

Modified: “You’re probably not gonna beat I.” ORYou’re probably not gonna beat we.” 

I hope this sentence makes you think this is not quite right (aside from the fact that I’ve colored it red). Both options are horrendous, right? This is a typical case of hypercorrection by using the nominative case instead of the objective. “You” is the thing doing the beating, and “Finn and I” are the things getting beaten.

“I thought you and me were an item.” — Noah Puckerman, season 2, episode 15.

Modified: “I thought us were an item.” 

Again, this doesn’t work. “I” is the thing doing the thinking, and “you and I” are the things being thought about.

“Nothing is going on between Sam and I.” — Quinn Fabray, season 2, episode 19.

Modified: “Nothing is going on between we.”

This is probably the most common mistake out there in coordinated noun phrases. A lot of people are under the impression that it should always be “between X and I.” However, when you test the sentence to see if it’s nominative or objective, you will quickly see that the nominative doesn’t work. “Nothing” is the thing going on, and “Sam and me” are the things nothing is going on between.

As I watched the entire season 2 of Glee, I counted 71 cases of X and I and 15 cases of X and me. Out of the total of 71 X and Is, only 9 were in the incorrect case. This is why hypercorrection happens; X and I is much more common than X and me and is most of the time used correctly, so to be safe, people start using the former all the time. Though of course that doesn’t mean you should!


  • Hypercorrection: when people over-use what they think is a grammar rule. In this case, the use of “me” is believed to be incorrect and is therefore replaced with “I.”
  • Coordinated noun phrase: two pronouns joined together (you and I, she or he, us and them)
  • Subject: the thing that’s doing something.
  • Object: the thing that’s having something done to it.
    • For instance, in “I want him,” I is the subject and him is the object.
  • Nominative: the case of the subject of a sentence (for pronouns: I, you, she, we, etc.)
  • Objective: the case of the object of a sentence (for pronouns: me, you, her, us, etc.).

Rags recently completed a BA degree in English from a university in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For her final thesis, she researched common breaches of prescriptive grammar on American TV. She does not sit around on Saturday nights counting grammar mistakes on teen dramas for fun.

Dot Dot Not: The Right Way to Use Ellipses

When I was a freshman in high school, the school drama club performed Christopher Sergel’s play Up the Down Staircase. In it, a young high-school teacher receives a love letter from one of his students. Not one to let a girl down gently, he asks her to stay after class, at which point he reads it back to her with his corrections:


Each time this monologue was delivered, the audience erupted into laughter. Sure, the guy playing Paul had great comedic timing, but that was only part of what made it hilarious. Mostly, the scene works because overuse of ellipses is as common in amateur (as well as adolescent) writing as said bookisms and comma splices. This isn’t to say you should never use ellipses in fiction. There are some instances in which you can confidently (and quite correctly) bust out those three little dots.

Use ellipses in dialogue to indicate a character is trailing off.
This is not to be confused with dashes, which are used to show interruption.

“But I thought…” She shook her head, sighing. “I don’t know what I thought.”

“You didn’t think; that’s the problem. If you used what’s between your ears half as much as you use what’s between your legs–”

“How dare you!”

Use ellipses to show part of a conversation is being omitted, e.g. one side of a phone conversation.

“Hello… Yes, this is she… Go die in a fire; I’m on the Do Not Call list.”

Ellipses may also be used within dialogue to indicate a pause.

“He would never do that…would he?”

This one is a bit dicier. From a grammatical standpoint, the above sentence is correct. However, it tells readers the character hesitates without showing them why or how—information which can greatly strengthen the scene.

“He would never do that.”  She replays his answers in her head, hoping to reassure herself. The more she thinks about it, she realizes how vague he’s been when she’s asked him about his ATM withdrawals. Her heart beats faster; she feels her face heat up. “Would he?”

Using a beat in place of an ellipsis is a good way to make sure you’re showing readers a scene, rather than simply relaying what is being spoken. And what’s the first rule of writing fiction? Show; don’t tell.

This post was suggested by an EBS user with the enthusiastic support of EBS co-founder Detochkina, who despises the overuse of ellipses as intensely as she loves designer footwear. If there’s a topic you’d like to see covered, leave a comment or tweet @sleepyvalentina.

Twit-Tip: Who Are You? Who? Whom? Who? WHAT? Using Who, Whom, Whose, and Who’s

The word who is a pronoun—like he, she, it, we, you, and they—and follows the same rules. When being used as the subject of a sentence, who is the correct form. 

Here are the rules:

Use who the same way you’d use she, he, etc:

Who is going to the store?

She’s going to the store?

Use whom the way you’d use her, him, etc:

I made the check out to him. 

To whom should I make out the check?

Whose is the possessive form. Use it the way you’d use hers, his, etc:

This sweater is hers. 

Whose sweater is this?


Who’s is a contraction for who is or who has. It is never used to show possession. Though possessives are usually formed by adding an apostrophe s, this is never true of possessive pronouns: hers, yours, theirs, his, ours, whose. 

Twit-Tip: There Is a Grammar Fairy (and She Usually Travels via FedEx)

I shit you not. Granted, I’m not talking about a rosy-cheeked matron with a magic wand who will appear from nowhere and make your story perfect the way Cinderella’s rags were transformed to designer silks. What she will do is give you the tools you need to improve your writing on your own.  Where to find her? Barnes and Noble. Amazon. Pretty much anywhere that sells writing style guides.

What exactly is a style guide?

They’re not like your eight-grade grammar textbook. Simply put, it’s a book containing tips to make your writing better.  They come in all shapes and sizes and vary in purpose. Guides like The University of Chicago Press Manual of Style and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage  provide guidelines on formatting issues such as capitalization and when to spell out numbers. Which to use depends on personal preference; just be sure to use the same one consistently.

Some style guides enable the user to find quick answers to grammar questions. I’ll let you in on a little secret—I never write or beta without at least three of these within reach. My favorite is Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, an alphabetically organized handbook detailing over 2,000 common grammar and usage issues and thorough explanations of how to avoid them. It’s my go-to source when both writing and editing, and I strongly encourage authors for whom I beta to use it when proofreading.

Then there are guides which aim to help you improve your writing as a whole. These cover a variety of topics varying from novel structure to query letters. Again, personal preference and writing style will play a large part in which guides will work best for you. When I write columns about form, the topics and advice given is generally compiled from several such guides. Of these, the one I use most is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This text gives advice on everything from crafting effective dialogue to avoiding stylistic devices that make a writer seem insecure (e.g. italics and exclamation points).

So while you can’t expect some eccentric old chick in a funny dress to wave her magic wand and make your dangling participles vanish, with the right tools you can empower yourself to craft your own masterpiece. Now there’s something even a Disney heroine would envy!

sleepyvalentina is a style-guide devotee, an EBS beta, and a bit over-caffeinated.