spelling/grammar pedantery Q

Would inappropriate substitution of a homonym be considered a grammar error or spelling error?

Like writing throws where you mean throes.

The thread title is just bait for all the grammar/spelling Nazis, right? You know it’s really “pedantry”?

As to your question: I’d call it a spelling error.

Definitely not a grammar error. A grammar error occurs when you do something that violates the accepted rules of sentence construction or other norms.

It could be a spelling error if the person making it did not realize the two words were spelled differently (or was just guessing at how they were spelled).

Or it could be a semantic error if the person making the mistake did not know what the words actually meant to most people, for example, if he thought that the “throes of death” were something a pitcher experienced during a baseball game.


I often see (on the Internet) any type of writing error called a grammar error, but as Alley Dweller points out, grammar errors are a specific type of language error. There are punctuation errors, questions of style (harder to say what is an error, more a matter of opinion), spelling, usage, and grammar errors (maybe others, too).

Your example is a spelling error aggravated by the fact that the misspelling happens to be the correct spelling of a different word. But I don’t think there is a single term for that type of spelling error.

I would probably call it a usage error.

You are using a proper word, and a correctly-spelled word, but you are using the word incorrectly. Or, if you prefer, you are using the wrong word.

One of the usage dictionaries i have on my shelf (Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage) notes that “*throes *is sometimes mistakenly spelled throws.”

Agree with mhendo. The OP, whether deliberately or not, defines the nature of the error. The writer mistakenly intends to use a particular word, spells it as intended, but it’s the wrong word. Which wrong word, more or less coincidentally, is pronounced the same as the word he should have used.

That’s a word choice error. Not spelling nor grammar error.

Obviously there’s yet another category of modern error, the autocorrect error. Where you type something close to the word you intend, autocorrect changes it to another nearby word in spelling-space, and you never detect the discrepancy. Even worse are the ones where you type the intended word correctly, but it’s obscure enough that autocorrect doesn’t recognize it. But it does know some other nearby word and silently substitutes that one.

If you want to get pedantic, a word isn’t a homonym unless it is both a homophone (pronounced the same way) and a homograph (written the same way). I’m not sure how one would even detect such an error.

The two dictionaries I checked disagree with you.

Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster list homophone as the first definition for homonym.

Are you sure about that? Did the writer really “intend” to write throws–that is, the verb form? Did the writer really conceive of a person throwing something?

Probably not. The writer probably was automatically transcribing a chunk of unanalyzed language.

We need to examine the cognitive process carefully, and it makes a difference that what we’re dealing with here (in this particular example) is essentially a question of idomaticity. I know that many might not consider in the throes of to be an idiom, but more and more research on this–on how vocabulary is cognitively processed as chunks–shows that what we have traditionally termed as “idiom” actually applies a to lot more of our lexicon than we have traditionally thought.

We really don’t process words one-by-one.

So the writer neither intended to write throws nor throes, but rather intended to transcribe an idiom (in the throes of)–and yes, cognitively it’s an idiom. The writer was putting on paper a chunk of language that he or she has often heard, and understands perfectly (and which he or she understand to have nothing to do with tossing an object).

Because the writier might never have seen this phrase transcribed before (or perhaps maybe only a few unmemorable times), it’s only natural to transcribe a word which as he or she has seen before, namely throws–in an automatic way.

In order to understand the error we need to rethink what a “word” really is.

The writer was thinking the word “throes”, and if he said it out loud, it would have sounded correct to a listener, so no grammatical error occurred. But “throws” or “throze” or “throse” would all have been misspellings when he wrote it. Whether or not the writer knew that “throws” and “throes” are two different words with unrelated meanings is immaterial.

@guizot: Agree completely the OP’s statement is ambiguous if we look closely enough. As is all language, both written and spoken. My interpretation of it was the writer accurately implemented his intent; wrong though his intent was. Re-reading the OP again I see that’s not as clear-cut as I first thought.

I’m not sure what the idiom vs. word distinction gets us in this case. Although there are certainly cases where you’re absolutely right that that’s the relevant unit of interest.

If the writer genuinely doesn’t know the word “throes” and believes/assumes “in the throws of” is what he’s heard others say, that’s a different error *process *from a writer who knows both words but mis-knows which is appropriate here. Which is a different error *process *again from a writer who knows the correct usage of each if asked and yet has a momentary glitch and writes “throws” anyhow. And last of all is the writer whose brain *writes *“throes” but whose fingers *type *“throws” unnoticed.

Each of those is a different error *process *leading to the same error result. Which causes us now to ask the OP: Were you interested in how to label the defective result or the defective process? And which of these defect processes are you positing?

Eye think spelting aaron its , theirs difference a ,

The temptation to write something witty is overwhelming, but…

in the example you mention, I think it’s just a plain old error of ignorance. While the spelling is incorrect for the needed word, the likely cause is a deficit of knowledge and not a deficit of how to spell the correct word were it known to the author.

–Chief Pedante :wink:

Ignorance in spelling is invariably a harbinger of ignorance in other more important matters … as witness a president-elect who cannot differentiate between “president” and “precedent” in his tweets.

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Spelting is overratted …

I’d argue most usage errors are spelling errors. The writer clearly uses them as different words. They aren’t using “throws” as a verb, but as a noun. They just mistakenly think they are homographs, rather than mere homophones.

The only situation where I could see a usage error not being a spelling error is in something like “take it for granite,” where the user may actually think the fixed phrase is about assuming something is rock solid when it isn’t.

I agree that the word “homonym,” meaning “same name,” would most logically used for something that is both a homophone and homograph, but it’s been used as a synonym for “homophone” for so long that we have to accept that there just is no single word for that concept.

Words that are both homophones and homographs: “bow” (shoots arrows) and “bow” (tied ribbon).
Words that are only homographs: “bow” (shoots arrows) and “bow” (bend at waist).