English spelling conventions are generally bizarre. Homonyms in particular exemplify this inherent wackiness and can be divided into two groups: homographs and homophones.
Homographs are subtle but tricky. They are those crazy, mutant words that are spelled the same way but that (1) have different meanings and (2) may have different pronunciations. You may come across one and think that it’s out of place, but it really isn’t. Unless you already realize that this seemingly simple little word means something different in this context than it does in others, you may have some difficulty comprehending the sentence. Furthermore, if you speak the sentence aloud, you may unwittingly mispronounce the word, confusing (or amusing) anyone who may be listening.
To be fair, English speakers become quite accustomed to the strenuous mental acrobatics required to read the language in a fluid and natural way, but this only disguises the homograph’s odd nature. The fact that two sounds may spring forth from a single string of letters is the linguistic equivalent of a cow hatching from a hen’s egg. Think of it this way: if you told your chemistry teacher that you mixed two chemicals in the same proportion twice and produced a different substance each time, he would sigh and tell you to do it again — the right way this time.
But spelling two words the same way may get you an A+ in English … assuming you also use the words correctly. For example:
Attending to the minute details will take more than a minute.
On a windy day, we walked along a windy trail.
And be aware that some homographs sound the same but still convey multiple meanings.
The test subject was the subject of much discussion between the scientists.
And for all that, you still have to sidestep all the confusion brought about by homophones: words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. No doubt, you remember your second grade teacher demonstrating the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” or between “hire” and “higher,” etc.
You are probably more accustomed to thinking about homophones, and I’m sure you regularly take note of them because it’s rather embarrassing when someone points out that you chose the wrong spelling. I recall one particular first-year philosophy course in which so many of the 200+ students confused “it’s” and “its” on a major assignment that the professor felt the need to bring it up in lecture. (Ouch.) Suddenly filled with nagging self-doubt, I double-checked my paper and was relieved to find no such errors. Still, never forget that rushing and carelessness can lead anyone to make silly errors that will leave them red-faced.
But let’s put a slightly more positive spin on this situation. When you start to tally up the many ways there are to represent one sound, the more you realize just how remarkably flexible English is. For example, how many ways can you think of to produce a long “a” sound? Here are the ways that I can think of offhand, and for comparison, I have also pointed out some combinations that can produce long “e” and long “i” sounds as well.
Long "a" Long "e" Long "i" a_e (race) a_y (nary) ae (sundae) (faeces) ai (pair) (Thai) ay (may) (Hayden) ei (lei) (leisure) (feisty) eig (reign) eigh (weigh) (Ashleigh) (height) ey (grey) (parsley) (geyser)
I was able to come up with nine different ways to produce one very common sound, and more than half a dozen words in which these same letter combinations produce other sounds as well. I can certainly think of some sounds not mentioned here that can be produced by one or more of the above combinations, such as the short vowel sound heard in “foreign.” I also have little doubt that there are some words that I didn’t think of that would fit nicely into the gaps in the list above.
Additionally, nine different spellings for one sound isn’t even all that many in the grand scheme of things. Katherine Barber shows us thirty (30!) ways to produce “see” — check out the Notes from Canada’s Word Lady post on the Canadian Oxford Dictionary website.
In short, whether you’re a writer or an editor, you always need to keep an eye out for those tricky little homonyms. And considering how many different letter combinations can be used to represent a given sound — and how many different sounds may be represented by a single letter combination — you could be forgiven for thinking it miraculous that any of us ever learned to spell our own names.