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Commonly Confused Homophones

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Homophones are words that sound identical, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. The following are definitions of some commonly confused homophones, followed by simple mnemonic tricks that writers can use to double check whether they are using the correct forms for the correct meanings.

Principle vs. Principal

A principle is used only as a noun, meaning an idea, or ideal, that is used to guide decision making. A principal is an administrator of rank; a person charged with making decisions. When I was of school age, I was helped to remember the distinction by saying to myself:

  •  The school principal is my pal.

It was the vice-principal you had to watch out for…. Principal also has a variety of other uses and meanings: as an adjective, describing positions of relative importance, and as a noun meaning property or capital (see below) before interest.

Capitol vs. Capital

Capitol is a very specific word, with strictly limited uses. It is a noun, meaning a building that houses a state legislature. It is also used as a proper noun, Capitol, only when referring to that building which houses the U.S. federal legislature in Washington, D.C.

Capital has multiple meanings and uses, one of which is referring to a municipality that plays host to the legislative apparatus of a state or country. Hence,

  •  The state legislators meet 3 times a week inside the capitol building in Albany, the capital of New York state.

Other common uses of capital, as a noun, refer to wealth in the form of property or money before interest, and capital letters. One way to remember the correct spelling for the latter usage is that capital letters are tall. It is also frequently used as an adjective, meaning principal (see above) or referring to an offense deserving of the death penalty.

Compliment vs. Complement

A compliment is something said that is flattering. Complement means something completes a set or is a flattering addition to something. One spelling has an ‘i,’ the other has an ‘e.’ We can remember the difference by saying to ourselves, “I like to give compliments.”

  •  I complimented the host on the menu, saying, “the hors d’oeuvres were the perfect complement to the main course.”

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