Are Your Homonyms Showing?

Asian art curator Janet Baker pores over an ancient scroll.



Beginning in first grade, US school children are introduced to the concept of homonyms, words that have different meanings and spellings, but which sound alike.

Homonyms are the words that Spellcheck won’t catch for you, words like plane and plain and to, two, and too.

Here are two recent examples of incorrect homonym use on sites that can be expected to model standard usage.


Impact of nurse, nurses’ aid staffing and turnover rate on inpatient health outcomes in long term care hospitals—US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.

The family hired a nursing aid who cancelled at the last minute.—USA Today.

First documented in the fifteenth century (1475) as a noun meaning help or assistance and variously spelled as eide, ayde, and ayd, the word aid settled down to its modern spelling in the seventeenth century.

The earliest documentation of aid to mean “a person who renders help or assistance, is dated 1569. In British usage, the word aid can still be used to refer to a person who helps.

Not so in American usage.

The French spelling aide entered English in 1777 as a military term, as in aide de camp. Likely beginning metaphorically, in US English, the spelling aide came to be applied to nonmilitary helpers. In 1837, James Fenimore Cooper referred to “political aides.” An ex-army officer writing about Hawaii in 1881 referred to a “bishop and his aides.” In 1930 we find reference to “a postmaster’s aide.” From 1940 onward, in American English, nurse’s helpers have been aides, not aids.

The spelling aid to denote a person is viewed as nonstandard by both The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook.


Armed with a dolly and three suitcases full of social security documents and research, Witter found help from a social worker who poured over the papers.—ABC13 Eyewitness News.

She [Elaine Pagels] poured over the golden brown papyri until she began to genuinely enter their world, in some sense touching on the experience of gnosis that inspired those who originally composed and used the texts.—a philosophy site called Mindful.

Pour is a verb meaning, “to transfer water or some other substance from a container.”

The word pore is used as both noun and verb. As a noun, a pore is “an opening in the skin.”

As a verb, pore means, “to examine closely.”

The social worker pored over the papers, and the scholar pored over the golden brown papyri.