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Know Your Homonyms! Compliment vs. Complement & More

In this edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven more sets of homophones—this time, those starting with "C." Read on below to learn about the differences between these similar-sounding word pairs: cannon & canon, capital & capitol, cord & chord, complacent & complaisant, compliment & complement, councillor & counselor, and crevice & crevasse.

Know Your Homonyms: cannon vs. canon, capital vs. capitol, cord vs. chord, complacent vs. complaisant, compliment vs. complement, councillor vs. counselor, and crevice vs. crevasse

Cannon vs. Canon

The spelling of cannon with three n's is the one you are likely more familiar with. It refers to a large gun (often one that is so heavy it needs its own wheels for transport), such as those seen in the U.S. Civil War. For example,

The soldiers halted their advance when the enemy's cannon began to fire.

The spelling of canon with two n's is less well-known, but it has many meanings that apply across various subjects. Its original meaning is "dogma or law set out by the church," and you'll still hear it used in religious contexts. This was expanded to refer to a list of works that are considered official scripture, and from there, to include the official works of any author (such as the Shakespearean canon). These days, this usage includes the official plots of large, multimedia universes (e.g., the Star Wars canon). Here are some examples of these uses:

The Apocrypha are little-studied because they are not officially part of the Christian canon. The Game of Thrones canon includes thousands of years of fictional history.

In a different extension of the original meaning, canon can refer to any principle or body of principles:

Per editing canon, the more concise phrasing is best, all else being equal.

Capital vs. Capitol

These words are obviously related, but the last vowel holds a key distinction. Capital with an "a" refers to the city where a seat of government is located (such as Washington, D.C., for the United States), but capitol with an "o" refers to the building where the government is headquartered (such as the U.S. Capitol Building). Here are examples:

Atlanta is both Georgia's largest city and its state capital. The dome of the Georgia Capitol Building is plated in gold from the state's northern region.

Cord vs. Chord

The spelling cord is fairly common; it often refers to a rope or other flexible material, typically composed of strands. A cord in this sense is used to fasten or tie. In anatomy, a cord connects two parts (as in an umbilical cord). Metaphorically, this spelling can also refer to an emotional bond. Finally, cord is the unit for a stack of cut wood equal to 128 cubic feet. Here are a couple example sentences:

The various parts of the tent are tied together with leather cords. Ernestine spent the week chopping two cords of wood to heat the cabin for the winter.

The spelling chord has two common meanings, both of which are in specialized fields: In mathematics, it refers to a line segment that connects two parts of a circle, and in music, it refers to three or notes played in unison to create a single sound. The musical meaning is extended metaphorically to refer to an emotion in the idiom "strike a chord" (which means "induce a resonant emotion"). For instance,

The length of the chord happens to be equal to the circle's radius. To play "Great Balls of Fire," you must learn the C, D7, and F7 chords. The film's finale will strike a chord with any parent of a grown child.

Both spellings of chord relate to cord, but in different ways. The mathematical meaning comes from the sense of connecting; the musical meaning comes from a musical string being a cord. To keep them straight, you just have to remember to add the "h" if you are referring to music or math, or when using the phrase "strike a chord."

Complacent vs. Complaisant

The more common term, complacent, refers to self-satisfaction that is typically unearned. A person who is complacent is unaware of potential dangers, which causes them to be unprepared for those dangers. That person may still succeed, but if so, their success is partly attributable to luck.

By contrast, complaisant is rarer and means "tending to please others rather than oneself." A person who is complaisant is often a doormat, but the word can also be used positively, such as to describe a person who is very generous with their time. Here are sentences with both versions:

Ever complacent, Reginald stopped studying for the test after an hour, assuming he'd pass. Mindy is so complaisant that she spends her lunch hour picking up her coworkers' lunches.

Compliment vs. Complement

These are among the most commonly confused homophones. First, a compliment is an instance of praise, and to compliment someone is to give them praise. By contrast, a complement fits well with something else, and to complement something is to fit well with it. For instance,

I'll offer you this compliment: Your work is always well-researched. The reviewer complimented the restaurant's appetizers but criticized its service. Red wine makes for an excellent complement to beef dishes. The blue accent wall complements the rest of the room perfectly.

To remember the different meanings, I like to keep in mind that people give compliments but that things complement other things. Because "I" am a person, the word that relates to people is the one spelled with an "i." I hope that helps!

Councillor vs. Counselor

These words are both job titles, but they are actually simple to keep straight as long as you know the nouns that they are based on. A councillor is a member of a council (i.e., a governing or advisory group, such as a city council); a counselor is someone who gives counsel (advice), such as a career counselor. Generally, use the spelling with "cill" if the person is a member of a group and use the spelling with "sel" if the person is acting as an individual. Here are some examples:

Of the five councillors, only two support the measure, so it will not pass. On my counselor's advice, I applied to seven schools, including a "safety school."

Crevice vs. Crevasse

Finally, we have two near-homophones that are very similar in meaning but that differ in scale. A crevice is a tiny, narrow gap such as a crack, but a crevasse is a larger, deeper gap. If emphasizing that something is small, use crevice, but if emphasizing that something is large, use crevasse. Here are examples:

Ricardo hid the stolen jewels in a crevice between the wall and the floorboards. The mountain climber nearly fell into a crevasse when the ice abruptly split open.

That's all for this edition of Know Your Homonyms! Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions for other homonyms to cover in this series. You can leave a comment below or email me at Thank you for reading, and please visit the next time you need high-quality editing services.



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