In this post—the first in a series—I examine seven common pairs of homonyms and explain how to properly use the words in each pair. Here, the focus is on homophones: words that are pronounced the same (or nearly the same).
Below, I explain the differences between accept & except, aid & aide, amend & emend, bail & bale, bait & bate, borne & borne, and breaches & breeches.
Accept vs. Except
The verb accept has many shades of meaning, but the most common ones are "to agree" (accept an argument), "to give a favorable response to" (accept an offer), and "to receive willingly" (accept the package). Other meanings include "to be able to receive" (the dishwasher accepts any type of detergent) and "to assume an obligation to pay" (the store accepts Bitcoin).
On the other hand, except can be a verb (meaning "to exclude" or "to object to"; the sale excepts large items), but it is more commonly a preposition referring to the exclusion of something (any time except 3 p.m.) or a conjunction meaning "with one exception" (is unavailable except by appointment) or "only" (I'd go except that I don't have money for admission).
Here are a couple example sentences that use both words:
I cannot accept any of these terms except the proposed payment date. The secondhand store accepts all types of furniture except mattresses.
Aid vs. Aide
As a verb, aid means "to give assistance"; it is also a noun meaning "assistance." You are likely familiar with these meanings.
The noun aide is related to aid; however, its meaning is much narrower. Aide specifically refers to an assistant (i.e., someone who helps another person, typically as a profession).
Here is a simple rule: If you are referring to a person, use aide with an "e"; otherwise, use aid. Notably, use the version with an "e" for common job titles such as "teacher's aide" and "medical aide." See these examples:
Students from low-income households can apply for financial aid to help pay their tuition. These canned goods will aid the shelter in feeding the city's needy residents.
The mayor's aide was responsible for scheduling all official meetings and events.
Amend vs. Emend
These verbs are obviously related, but there is a subtle distinction in their meanings. Amend with an "a" is more general, referring to any change that fixes a problem with something or otherwise improves it. By contrast, emend with an "e" refers only to changes that correct errors in text. A handy mnemonic is that emend applies only to editing—both start with "e"—but amend applies to all improvements. Note that you can apply amend to corrections in text, so if you are not sure, you can always use amend.
The noun form of amend is "amendment" (as in the amendments to the U.S. Constitution). The noun form of emend is "emendation." Here are some examples sentences:
Will you amend your position on the tax now that you see how the proceeds will be used? The renters had to sign seven amendments to their lease in addition to the lease itself.
Please review my feedback on your essays and make any necessary emendations by Friday. For a low price, Elevation Editing emended my cover letter, and then I got the job!
Bail vs. Bale
The word bail was originally used to refer to a bucket or similar container that was used to remove water from a boat. The word then became a verb that referred to the act of removing water from a boat. Later, the phrase bail out came to refer to the metaphorical act of helping someone out of trouble. In particular, this phrase now refers to the act of paying money to secure someone's release from jail—and, as a noun, bail can also refer to the money paid in this way.
On the other hand, there are two unrelated nouns that are spelled as bale. The first can mean "evil" or can refer to sorrow caused by evil forces or actions. This word is somewhat rarely used these days, but is the source of the more commonly used word "baleful" (meaning "having a very negative influence" or "foreboding"). The second form of bale refers to a large bundle of something—usually a harvested food plant such as wheat or hay. This use is fairly common but also fairly specific; you're unlikely to refer to a "bale of crayons" or a "bale of books," even if that would technically be acceptable.
Here are some examples:
After the rowboat sprung a leak, Roger had to bail water out of the boat using his hat. Thank you for bailing me out by distracting the dog that was about to bite me. Inaya was released after she paid $500 in bail.
The demon's every action was designed to produce bale. The novel coronavirus has had truly baleful effects on both public health and the economy. Bales of hay were scattered throughout the pasture to help the farmer feed the cows there.
Bait vs. Bate
The noun and verb forms of bait are both quite common. As a noun, it literally refers to food or some other object that is used to lure an animal so that it can be caught; in addition, it metaphorically refers to any sort of inducement that will have a negative effect on the person or thing that "takes the bait" (a common idiom). As a verb, bait refers to the placing of such an object (as in baiting a hook with a worm before fishing); it can also refer to the act of luring someone or something (as in baiting out a desired response).
The verb bate means "to restrain" or "to deduct." By far the most common use of this word is in the idiom "with bated breath"—which literally refers to someone holding (restraining) their breath but is metaphorically used to mean "with great anticipation." You are unlikely to see bate used anywhere outside of this phrase, but it is good to know the correct spelling of the idiom.
Here are some examples of how to use both words:
As bait for the mouse trap, I am using a small hunk of cheese. The criminal took the bait and walked right into the trap that the police had set. The chess player cleverly baited her opponent into advancing his queen.
The audience waited with bated breath as the judges prepared to announce the winner.
Born vs. Borne
These words both come from the verb "bear" (as in "carry"), but their meanings have diverged over the centuries. Born has diverged from the original meaning of carrying and now usually refers to birth or creation, either literally or metaphorically; a baby is born, and a person's actions can be said to be "born of good intentions," for instance. It can also be used as a suffix to refer to where a person or thing is from (as in French-born). You are likely comfortable with these uses.
By contrast, borne with an "e" refers to the original meaning of carrying. It can be used on its own (as in a smell borne on the wind), but it is most commonly used as a suffix to indicate the source of an effect, as in the common words "airborne" and "foodborne."
Here are some sample sentences with both words:
Believe it or not, Angela Basset and Madonna were born on the same day. It was a homecoming of sorts when the Georgia-born player signed with the Atlanta Braves. Dozens of beloved characters have been born of J.K. Rowling's mind.
Malaria is typically an insect-borne disease. Despite his injuries, Randall was borne all the way home by his loyal horse, Clomper.
Breaches vs. Breeches
Finally, let's address the unrelated words breaches and breeches. A form of the verb "breach," breaches literally means "breaks through" or "ruptures" (as in breaches the surface of the ocean); metaphorically, this is extended to refer to committing an infraction (breaches the code of conduct). As a noun, it refers to any such ruptures or infractions.
By contrast, the plural noun breeches refers to short pants that typically come down to a person's knees, or just below. As with "pants" and "shorts," this word is basically always used in the plural; you'll likely never refer to "a breech" (which is why this entry is not for "breach" vs. "breech"). Breeches are typically specialized pants for a specific purpose, such as riding a horse.
Here are some examples:
As the opposing army breaches the defenses, the general orders a full retreat. Due to your many breaches of your contract, we are suspending you for two weeks.
Allison always wears rugged boots and leather breeches when she goes to the stables.
That's all for this post. Stay tuned for more posts in this vein (not vain) in the future as I help you to properly use various homonyms. If there are any tricky word pairs that you'd like me to address, please let me know in the comments or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thank you for reading, and please consult ElevationEditing.com for all of your editing needs!