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Homophone Alert!

Over at the PBS Newshour website, I came across this:

“There is a lot of pressure in academia to tow certain ideological and political lines [emphasis mine], and people in academia who are independent thinkers are afraid to express countervailing feelings.”

The correct spelling, in this case, is toe. According to my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (18th edition), to toe the line is to “submit to discipline or regulations; to come into line with the rest. In foot races the runners are made to assemble with toes up to the start line.”

Or, as Paul Brians explains, it has to do with “lining your toes up on a precise mark, not with pulling on a rope.”

Toe and tow are homophones, a type of homonym. Homonyms are words that sound alike but mean different things, like fair (lightly complected), fair (exhibition), and fair (just); homophones are simply homonyms that also happen to be spelled differently – there, their, and they’re, for example, or to, too, and two. All homophones are homonyms, in other words, but not all homonyms are homophones.

It’s a little mistake, of course. But it’s precisely this sort of thing that could raise questions about the veracity of the story. “If the writer doesn’t understand the difference,” the reader may think, “why should I trust the rest of the article?”

Or maybe that’s just me.



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