Using a reference guide is not without some challenges. Definitions can be obscure and unhelpful. For instance, one dictionary referred to a mirror as “any surface that is capable of reflecting enough light without scattering it so that it shows an image of any object placed in front of it.” That’s the kind of definition you have to read twice to understand.

Sometimes dictionaries define words with words we don’t know. For example, a glossary is defined as “a collection of textual glosses.” So what are glosses? Thank goodness Merriam Webster’s dictionary adds a phrase explaining glosses as “specialized terms with their meanings.” That’s a definition you can understand.

Homographs, which are spelled the same but have different meanings, present another challenge. A dog’s bark and a tree’s bark are very different. The homographs volume (“how loud something is”), volume (“one book in a series of books”), and volume (“the amount of space something occupies”) are quite dissimilar. Reading all the entries in a definition is particularly important when you are dealing with homographs like volume.

Then there are homophones, which sound the same but are not spelled the same. A homophone pair includes words like through and threw as in the sentence, “He threw the ball through the hoop.” The title of “An Ode Two the Spelling Chequer” contains two homophones, the common two and to and the less common chequer, which is a British variant for the word checker. Click on the words in each line of this poem to reveal additional homophones.You should find 36 homophones.

We are accustomed to checking our spelling, but we still make mistakes with homophones. When we misuse common homophones such as it’s for its or one for won our spelling programs may alert us with squiggly lines under the words. But the software doesn’t always catch less common homophones such as tolled and told or words that are almost homophones such as world and whirled. Their a challenge. Oops. They’re a challenge.

How can we always be sure we have the word with the meaning we want? The answer is comprehensive: by being alert to homographs and homophones; paying attention to the context; noticing how the word functions as a noun, adjective, or verb; and confirming the meaning of the word in the dictionary.