Don’t trust your computer. In particular, don’t trust the application on your computer that checks your spelling. Oh, it will probably be helpful if you’re typing a letter to your little niece and you slip up on words like “caribou” or “embouchure”. Spell Check will instantly notify you that you’ve made a typo — it practically calls you dummy, right to your face. But it can’t deal with homonyms worth a darn.
In case you were out with strep throat the week your English teacher covered this topic, homonyms are words with dissimilar meanings that are pronounced the same but spelled differently… or pronounced differently but spelled the same. Examples of the first category — sometimes called homophones — include pair (two of a kind), pear (the fruit), and pare (to cut off). The second type — technically known as homographs — include tear (that drop of fluid coming out of your eye) and tear (to rip apart).
There are lots of others, and will your computer catch them? I don’t think so. As long as you spell a word correctly, it doesn’t know whether you meant to say, “I can’t bare it” — declining an invitation to the nude beach — or “I can’t bear it” — about some other problem you’re facing. Spell Check doesn’t comprehend context.
Suppose I write, “My wife is a sewer”. Shocking! But I didn’t mean to insult her by comparing her to… well, you know. I was simply stating that she is a person who sews, a seamstress. (And a very good one, too; her quilts win prizes.) The word I was using is pronounced identically to sower — one who sows, meaning “scatters seeds”, not sows, which are female pigs. So — are we clear on this? Good, because your computer is completely lost.
Here’s what I’m getting at: If the two of us are having a spoken conversation, I’ll know when you mean isle and not aisle. But if you are writing the same idea to me, your computer might try to correct you, even if you used the right spelling, or — more likely — it won’t even bother.
You and I care about these subtleties of our complicated language because we want our emails and our reports and other written communications to convey what we actually mean. That’s why we struggle to find just the right word, and try to be sure we’ve spelled it correctly. To Spell Check, these distinctions are neither hear nor their. Its a dam shame.