Homonyms are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Some of the most commonly confused pairs of words are illustrated in the following examples:
1. “The color complimented her unusual skin tone.”
Unless the color was personified and therefore had the power of speech as well as discernment, it complemented, or enhanced by association, the hue of the person’s skin. Both the noun and verb forms of complement derive from the Latin word for “completion.” Compliment has the same root, but it refers to courtesy.
2. “He assured them he would be discrete about the matter.”
This error pops up frequently in personals ads (or—ahem—so I’ve been told) in which correspondents advertise their desire for a “discrete relationship.” Discrete and discreet have the same meaning, “separate, or distinct,” but divergent connotations. A discrete relationship wouldn’t be very satisfying, because discrete implies a categorical separation. Discreet, on the other hand, refers to secretive or surreptitious behavior—so, no long walks on the beach.