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Know Your Homonyms! Main vs. Mane, Mourn vs. Morn, & More

In the latest edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven sets of homophones that start with "M." Keep reading to learn about the differences between these similar-sounding word pairs: main & mane, maize & maze, marshal & martial, mean & mien, might & mite, more & moor, and mourn & morn.

Know Your Homonyms: main & mane, maize & maze, marshal & martial, mean & mien, might & mite, more & moor, and mourn & morn

Main vs. Mane

Most likely, you already know how to use the common word main, at least in its adjective form (which means "primary" or "of greatest size or importance"). It is also a noun that refers to a primary pipe or cable in a network (such as a water main or an electrical main).

Mane, on the other hand, refers to hair—especially the long neck hair of a horse, lion, or other mammal. By extension, any long, flowing mass of hair can be called a mane.

There is also a third homophone, but it is a proper noun: Maine, the U.S. state. To keep the three terms separate, remember that a "fountain" connects to a water main, that a mane is on an "animal," and that the water off the coast of Maine is "saline" (salty).

Here are some examples of these homophones in action:

The protestors' main request was for the city to reduce funding for its police force. The water main froze, causing it to burst open and spray frigid water all around.
Many groomers braid their horses' manes to keep them clean and untangled.
Maine is famous for its seafood-based cuisine, which features lobsters, clams, and fish.

Maize vs. Maze

Maize, to most of the world, is the common name for the grain that grows in "ears," each of which consists of many rows of individual kernels. In the United States, this grain is more commonly known as "corn," but maize is the ancestral Native American name. Maize is the most produced grain in the world, although only a fraction of that is used for direct human consumption (in the form of sweet corn and popcorn); it is also used for corn oil, corn starch, feed corn, and ethanol.

A maze, on the other hand, is a complex network of pathways that act as a puzzle. The solver must find a path from the start of the maze to the end. Most commonly, this is in printed form, as in the example shown below, but mazes are also commonly made of plants such as hedges and, yes, stalks of corn (maize). By extension, a maze can be any complicated or confusing setup (as in a maze of government regulations).

Here are some sample sentences:

The United States and China are the largest producers of maize in the world.
It took Roald over an hour to escape from the hedge maze outside the castle. The woods were a maze of disused paths, dry creek beds, and winding game trails.

I keep these words straight by remembering that maize is a grain and that a maze acts similarly to haze—by confusing people making it hard to get to the intended location.

Marshal vs. Martial

The word marshal has both noun and verb uses. The noun marshal is often used as a title for a high-ranking military, law-enforcement, or other officer (such as a fire marshal or field marshal); it can also refer to any authority figure (as in a ground marshal). As a verb, marshal refers to the act of assembling or arranging objects or other people for a specific purpose. This word come from Germanic roots meaning "horse" (think of "mare") and "servant," so a marshal was literally a "horse servant"—in other words, a person in charge of horses or horse-based soldiers. The modern uses derive from this.

The adjective martial means "related to war." It is a derivation of the Roman god of war, Mars. You have likely also seen this in the word for a military trial, court-martial.

These words can be confusing because they are both related to the military, but as long as you keep the parts of speech straight, you will know which spelling to use: martial is only for the adjective, and marshal is only for the noun and verb.

Here are example sentences with each word:

Raylan Givens, a fictional U.S. marshal, is known for his gun skills and distinctive hat. The director sought to marshal the charity's donors in the fight against hunger.
Martial law is the use of the military to enforce order in emergency situations.

Mean vs. Mien

There are three unrelated and fairly common words that are spelled mean—a verb, an adjective, and a noun. The verb form of mean can indicate "signify" (What do you mean?), "intend to occur" (This coat was meant for you), or "result in" (This law will mean that many people suffer). The adjective form of mean usually is a synonym for "unkind" or "unfair"; it can also mean "poor" or "inferior," though those uses are a bit old-fashioned now. Finally, the noun form refers to the mathematical average of two or more numbers; there are several types, but the most common is the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of all the items in a set divided by the number of items in the set. Here is how to calculate a simple mean of 4 numbers:

M = (a + b + c + d) / 4

The adjective mien refers to a person's appearance or manner, particularly in the ways that these reveal aspects of that person's character or mood (e.g., He had a suspicious mien).

Here are some sample sentences:

The label "libertarian" can mean many things, depending on one's focus. If you mean to increase your odds of winning at poker, you must learn the odds. Wearing a mask to work means added difficulty understanding your coworkers' speech. The children thought the teacher was mean for eliminating their playground time. The review dismissed the restaurant's food as "a mean attempt at French cuisine." The geometric mean is calculated by multiplying several numbers and then taking their root.
Maxine's nervous mien manifested in twitches and a lack of eye contact.

To keep these words straight, I think of how a mien is an indication of a person's beliefs and views.

Might vs. Mite

The common helper verb might was originally the past tense of "may," but it now acts an indicator that an action is possible but not guaranteed (as in they might be late). A synonym is "could." There is also a separate mass noun that is spelled might, and it means "great strength" (as in the might of the U.S. navy). You are potentially more familiar with the adjective form of this noun, "mighty." The verb and the noun actually have the same root, but they've taken such divergent paths over the centuries that there is no obvious connection.

A mite, on the other hand, is a type of small arachnid (relative of spiders and ticks). You may have heard of dust mites, for example. Most are under 1 mm in length, and some are microscopic. Most have four sets of legs, as shown in this illustration of a mite from the 17th century:

Here are some example sentences:

Hilda still might win the race, but she is well behind the leaders at this point. The might of the U.S. economy is unparalleled, but China's economy is growing quickly.
Many species of mite live in soil and play an important role: decomposing organic matter.

It's easy to keep these straight; just remember that a mite can bite.

More vs. Moor

I'm sure you don't need much explanation of what the very common word more means, but here's a quick review for completeness: it means "to a greater extent or amount" or "again" (as in once more).

The three words that are spelled moor* are much less common, but all of them do come up, so it's important to know the difference. The common noun moor has slightly different meanings in U.S. and U.K. English; in the U.S., it refers to a marsh or swamp, but in the U.K., it refers to any open, undeveloped land (often pluralized as the moors). The verb moor means "to tie up or otherwise attach a boat to a dock or something else on shore."

Finally, the proper noun Moor refers to a Muslim inhabitant of northwestern Africa and southwestern Europe between about the 8th and 15th centuries. This term does not refer to any particular people, so it is not used often in modern texts, but it was once quite common. Notably, Othello from Shakespeare's famous play of that name is described as a Moor.

* This word is usually pronounced like "more" (rhymes with "for") in the common noun and the verb forms, but the proper noun is more commonly pronounced with an "oo" sound (sort of rhymes with "cure"). The "oo" pronunciation is also fairly common for the common noun and the verb; regional variations and accents can affect this. Generally, either pronunciation should be understandable.

Remember that the most common usage is the only one spelled as more; all the others are spelled with two o's, as moor. Here are examples to illustrate the different uses:

Could I have some more cake if I finish my broccoli first? To practice the difficult piano piece, Sanjit played it once—then 10 times more.
The moor surrounding Rita's house is full of exotic plants and animals, including alligators. Don't forget to properly moor your rowboat before leaving the lake. Estevanico, or "Stephen the Moor" explored the southwestern U.S. in the name of Spain.

Mourn vs. Morn

The verb mourn refers to the act of feeling sorrow, regret, or sadness due to a loss—often, but not always, a person's death. For instance, you can also mourn the loss of a possession or even something intangible, such as a friendship.

The noun morn is simply a poetic shortening of the word "morning." It is commonly used in literary works (particularly older ones).

Here are some example sentences:

Americans of all stripes mourn George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer.
The light of the early morn shone golden through the open window.

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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