English is full of homophones that can cause confusion when speaking, but if the two similar sounding words are spelled differently they can be clarified as soon as they are written down. However, this causes an issue when attempting to deliberately write about someone hearing the incorrect words, because as soon as they are put onto the page Schrodinger's box is opened and the reader knows exactly which version is actually being said aloud.

From a limited perspective, it can be written as the POV character hears the words, but I feel that as soon as the misunderstanding is revealed it can completely jar the reader as they realize that they have deliberately been misled. For example, written from the perspective of the shopkeeper:

A man entered the shop and approached the counter, "good day sir, I would like four candles please."

"Of course, not a problem," the shopkeeper fetched four candles from the shelf and placed them on the counter.

"No, I asked for fork handles. Handles for forks."

As soon as the reader sees this they will realize that, whilst the listener could have easily misinterpreted the speaker accidentally, the writer purposefully decided to choose the opposite way to write it than was intended by the speaker, which means that the reader doesn't get the same chance to have their own interpretation of the phrase spoken.

I did think about the possibility of sewing an element of doubt into the writing, for example:

A man entered the shop and approached the counter, "good day sir, I would like four candles please."

"Of course, not a problem," the shopkeeper was quite sure that he had heard the customer correctly, so he went to fetch four candles from the shelf, and then placed them on the counter.

"No, I asked for fork handles. Handles for forks."

The issue with this is that as soon as the writing focuses on the opportunity for the character to misinterpret what he hears, it almost certainly means that he has heard incorrectly. If he hadn't misheard, there would be no reason for the writer to mention it, which means the surprise is taken from the reader when it is revealed.

Is there any good way to write down a homophone that still leaves the correct (and incorrect) interpretation open to the reader?

  • 2
    Terry Pratchett (RIP) did something clever in his book "Going Postal" just after the hero found "with the help of the gods" a load of money which the antagonists are discussing. While difficult to achieve, it shows one way such a thing could be done with characters not understanding. “Gods tend to be more interested in prophets, not profits, a-ha." There were some blank looks from his fellow directors. "Didn't quite get that one, old chap," said Stowley. "Prophets, I said, not profits," said Gilt. He waved his hand. "Don't worry yourselves, it will look better written down.
    – Stephen
    Nov 22, 2016 at 8:33

3 Answers 3


Be minimalist, and write what an outside observer would hear.

It's worth noting that even in the Fork 'Andles sketch, Ronnie B. is saying very little. He's not having a long conversation that would help us get a handle on his accent; he's just grunting the things he needs.

Telling this from Ronnie C's perspective, you wouldn't even allow for the possibility of mishearing until later in the text. Something like:

He unfolded a grubby piece of paper and squinted at it.

"Fou' candles," he said in a rough workers accent.

"Four candles?" I confirmed, turning to gather the requested items. I set the candles on the counter and said "There you are. Four candles.

The man just stared at them.

"Nah, fou' candles. 'Andles fer forks."

Fork handles he meant. Stupid blighter.

Later, with the man's accent more firmly fixed, we can play with it.

"Got any ose?"

Ose? I took a moment to parse that through his silly accent, with its dropped aitches, added in the fork handles, and realised what he meant. Hoes.

Gardening tools were on the other side of the shop. I set a fine hoe down in front of him, and he gave it a blank stare.

"No, ose."

"Oh, hose! I thought you meant hoes. Y'mean hose y' should've said that..."

I collected a reel of garden hose and dropped it in front of him.

"No, ose."

It was my turn to stare blankly. "Well what do...oh, you mean hose, panty hose!" Luckily we did have a pack of tights nearby. I grabbed it and brought it.

"No, ose, ose. O's for the gate, mon repose. Le'er O's."


The fork handles sketch was one of the most brilliant things The Two Ronnies ever did. And it depends for its success not simply on homophones, but on the manipulation of point of view. You can't write down a homophone (by definition, they are things that sound alike but are not written alike). But you can manipulate point of view.

You could do it by reporting what Ronnie Corbett hears in the sketch (the conversation from his POV), and Ronnie Barker's response when he puts those things on the counter.

You could do it by reporting what Ronnie Barker says (the conversation from his POV) and the things that Ronnie Corbett puts on the counter in response.

You could do it by putting the story in a frame and having either character relate the incident to his friends in the pub afterwards.

  • 1
    This is the way to go. The words on the page for the initial encounter will depend on which character's POV you're going with. Nov 21, 2016 at 16:08
  • My question was specifically about if it was written from Ronnie Corbett's point of view. Having it written down means that the writer needs to make a decision on how to write what the character hears. I'm asking if there is a way to do this whilst not deliberately misleading the reader to the incorrect conclusion without needing to switch the perspective. Nov 21, 2016 at 16:49
  • 1
    So if you are writing it from Ronnie Corbett's point of view, you simply record the words as he hears them. That is the only way the joke works. Any kind of phonetic inscription just tips the reader that something is going on and spoils the joke. If you are not comfortable with this, then use the retold tale frame so that RC is relaying what he heard to his friends at the pub. That way is his assertion, not yours, that RB said "four candles". But really, it might be wisest to accept that certain jokes work best in certain media. Auditory jokes work best in audible media.
    – user16226
    Nov 21, 2016 at 18:46

In the particular instance, for the joke to work Ronnie C had to be speaking in a certain accent for Ronnie B to misunderstand him, because 'four candles' and 'fork handles' are not generally homophonic. So you have to make sure the 'h' is dropped and that the accent doesn't differentiate the 'fou' and 'for' as Ronnie c's native accent would.
So for this instance you would have to devise a way of writing the words phonetically which also disguised the spelling. IPA is probably the way to go, but I'm not versed in it so am falling back on some random googling to suggest that if:
Fork Handle is 'fɔːk ˈhand(ə)l'
Four candles is 'fɔːˈkand(ə)l'

then perhaps you can run them together to something like 'fɔːkˈand(ə)l'

  • Whilst I wouldn't necessarily write it down in the IPA, writing the words as they sound ("fork 'andles" and "fou' candles" perhaps) and possibly stating that the shopkeeper had trouble understanding the accent is a very good idea. Nov 21, 2016 at 16:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.