Business Writing Essentials


Homonyms are words that sound the same but have slightly different spellings and often have very different meanings. For homonyms, the spell checker is not your friend: it can give you a false sense of security about the correctness of your writing. The only solution is diligence. You must be diligent in memorizing how to properly use homonyms, and you must be diligent in looking for them in your writing.

If remembering spellings and definitions is difficult, try putting together memory aids. The sillier, the better:


affect: influence (verb)

effect: cause (verb)

Air affects aardvarks. Eels effect electricity.

effect: result (noun)


compliment: praise (verb, noun)

complement: complete (verb, noun)

Complement with an e means to complete.

Compliment with an i is a prize or praise.


principal: chief or main; school administrator

principle: rule, truth

A principle is a rule, you fool—A principLE is a ruLE!

principal: money invested


averse: opposed to

adverse: harmful, unfavorable

Avis is averse to adverse ads.


assure: convince

ensure: make certain

insure: protect against future loss

I assured my assistant, who is since convinced.

He ensured that our enjoyment would be certain.

She insured her instrument: her cello is protected.


continuous: uninterrupted

continual: repeated

Our continual ball is in the fall.


discrete: separate and distinct

discreet: prudent

When we meet, be discreet.


stationery: paper

Stationery is paper.

stationary: unmoving

Wary Mary sat stationary.


A note to English majors: Yes, these aren't all homonyms. It doesn't matter. Homophone, homograph, homonym. We all know what's going on here: we easily type some words wrong because they sound so similar to other words. There is even a word that not only sounds the same, but is also spelled the same and means the opposite. Care to guess what homonym is its own antonym? Hint: It means to cut, or separate. It also means to adhere, or attach together. (answer: cleave)

Lesson: Homonyms
Module: Usage
Course: Business Writing Essentials