Rein vs. Reign, and Other Tricky Homophones You’re Mixing Up All the Time

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Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings, and usually different spellings. Some are easy to distinguish (plane and plain, flower and flour—though I still pause and reflect every time I need to write “cauliflower”) and some are harder. Here, we’ll focus on the trickier ones people easily get tripped up on. How many of these are you getting right every time?

Affect/Effect: Affect is the cause; effect is the result. For example: The rain affected everyone’s mood. Did the damp weather have any effect on your health?

Accept/Except: Accept means to receive. Except means “not including.” For example: The church is accepting food donations. They’ll take anything except expired food.

Rein/Reign: Reins are long, narrow straps attached to a horse’s bit. Reign means to hold royal office (or the period during which a sovereign rules). For example: Make no mistake, Whitney holds the reins in this relationship. It’s hard to believe Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for 69 years.

Although it may be counterintuitive, when conveying someone has freedom to do whatever they want, the correct expression is “free rein.” (It dates back to the 17th century when horseback riders would hold the reins loosely and let their horses lead.)

Principal/Principle: Principal means main, first in order of importance, the one with the most authority, or a sum of money on which interest is paid. A principle is a fundamental truth, theorem or law. For example: She never swayed from her principles. The school principal called me into her office. He is the principal of the firm. How much interest do you pay on the principal?

Stationary/Stationery: Stationary means not moving. Stationery is the pretty paper you write on. For example: My dad loves his stationary bike. I can’t stand being stationary all day. Did you buy new stationery for your desk? Here’s a helpful mnemonic device: Focus on the E’s: Stationery goes in envelopes (or stationery is envelopes).

Compliment/Complement: Compliments are expressions of praise. Complements complete (or enhance) something. But “complements complete” is a nifty memory tool. For example: Deb got a lot of compliments on her haircut. Corn nuts are the perfect complement to beer.

Bare/Bear: Bare means basic, simple, or not clothed. Obviously, we all know what bears are, but it’s also spelled bear when it’s used as a verb to mean endure or carry the weight of. For example: She bares all in her new memoir. If you ever moved away, I couldn’t bear it.

Capital/Capitol: Capital should be used when referring to a city, wealth, or an uppercase letter. Use capitol to refer to the building where lawmakers meet. For example: Trenton is the capital of New Jersey. How much capital do you need to start your own business? The new state capitol was finished in 1957. Remember: Most capitols have domes.

Than/Then: Than is used to compare; then is used to ground us in time. For example: Mary has more money than her brother. Let’s go shopping, then to the movies. A helpful trick is to remember: A van is bigger than a car.

Vain/Vein/Vane: Vain means egotistical, unsuccessful, or useless. Vein is an anatomical tube that carries blood to the heart. Vane is short for weathervane. In short: Vain: Bad. Vein: Good. Vane: Rare. For example: Mario has always been vain. He made a vain attempt to graduate.

If you need help remembering whether it’s “in the same vain” or “in the same vein,” remember this: If two things are “in the same vein” literally, they occupy the same blood vessel. Figuratively, they are the same or similar. For example: The sequel was written in the same vein as the original, but it’s not as good.

Who’s/Whose: Who’s is a contraction for who is. Whose is a pronoun indicating possession. For example: Who’s playing in the game tonight? Whose keys are these?

Elude/Allude: To elude is to evade or escape. (Look at all those E’s!) Allude is to suggest indirectly, or recall a previous work of art. For example: The fugitive eluded police for weeks. Sally alluded to Max’s involvement with Katrina, but wouldn’t accuse him outright. Her painting style alludes to Picasso’s work.

Censor/Sensor: Censor means to examine or suppress things deemed “unacceptable” (or the person doing the suppressing). A sensor is a device that detects or measures changes in its physical environment (aka that annoying thing stores forget to take off your clothes). For example: The First Amendment of the Constitution protects speech from government censorship. There’s a motion sensor above their garage. When in doubt, remember: Censors cut. Sensors sense.

Illusion/Allusion: An illusion is a deceptive appearance or false belief. Allusion is a figure of speech that refers to something indirectly. For example: Optical illusions can make you ill if you look at them long enough. Soft-baked chocolate chip cookies are my kryptonite (an allusion to Superman’s weakness).