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Monday, December 5, 2011

An instance of homophone confusion

Do not confuse "incidence", "incidents"  and "instance".

Recently I saw the following sentence: " I, and I'm sure plenty of others have seen and heard first-hand incidences of eating disorders".

This person meant "instances".

Incidence is a fancy-schmancy word for "rate": the occurrence, rate, or frequency of a disease, crime, or other undesirable thing. So you could say, "There is a high incidence of anorexia in that group". If you have problems with this, you'd be well advised just to use "rate" instead, and banish "incidence" from your active vocabulary so that you don't confuse it with "instance".

An instance is an example. A single example of something occurring, not the relative rate of its prevalence in a group. "In the course of the year, there were four instances of students with eating disorders."

Another confusion is between "incidence" and "incidents".

An incident is a happening or occurrence, usually an isolated case when something else is going on. The word usually has negative connotations, so if you read, "There was an incident at the ballet last night," you expect it to be that an audience member got up in the middle of the White Swan pas de deux and shouted profanities, not that everyone cheered for 20 minutes of curtain calls.

incidence = rate
instance = example
incidents = bad things happening


  1. As a long-time copy editor, I have considered homophones the land-mines of the English language. They help make editors still necessary because they confound computer spell-check. I have a long-standing question for you. Do other languages have homophones?

  2. Hello lwdnboy,
    Yes, other languages do have homophones. Not so many as English, perhaps. French for instance has sot (fool), sceau (seal, as in sealing wax), seau (pail); si (if), si (the note ti in the musical scale), scie (saw), ci (as in celui-ci, this one).


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.