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I once ran across a term for the error of misunderstanding the meaning or sense of a word because one doesn't know exactly what the word is. For example, someone mistakenly thinks that the phrase is "tow the line" rather than "toe the line." Can anyone tell me what this type of misunderstanding is called?

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'Toe' and 'tow' are homophones but not homonyms according to some authorities: 'In the strictest sense, a homonym must be both a homograph and a homophone. So say many dictionaries. However, other dictionaries allow that a homonym can be a homograph or a homophone.' ( vocabulary.com/articles/chooseyourwords/… ) –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '13 at 6:31
    
Does it happen to little kids a lot? It happened to me pretty often when I was very young. It'd generated a lot of fun. –  Terry Li Sep 5 '13 at 18:41
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marked as duplicate by Matt Эллен, TrevorD, jwpat7, Rory Alsop, Bradd Szonye Sep 5 '13 at 21:07

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2 Answers

As Edwin Ashworth has already mentioned, your example are homophones, not homonyms. A homonym looks the same and sounds the same. Stalk (follow) and stalk (stem of a plant) are homonyms. Read (a book) and reed (plant) are homophones.

In the strictest sense, there is sometimes a distinction drawn between 'true' homonyms as above, and polysemes where the words have a shared etymology and are technically the same word with differing meanings, such as mole (furry thing in a hole) and mole (a spy).

Alternatives to mondegreens -

malapropism - (the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar

or eggcorn if the phrase retains an unintentional meaning, signaled out instead of singled out for example.

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+1 for eggcorn. I suggest editing your post to move the meat of your answer (malapropism and eggcorn) to the beginning and de-emphasize the commentary on homophones. –  Bradd Szonye Sep 5 '13 at 9:35
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In particular, de-emphasize the “your example are homomphones” comment. –  jwpat7 Sep 5 '13 at 14:27
    
Eggcorns usually rely on the speaker’s accent, as well. –  Jon Purdy Sep 5 '13 at 20:28
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These errors are called mondegreens, especially in the context of misheard lyrics.

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Great answer!! Excuse me, while I kiss this guy... –  J.R. Sep 5 '13 at 10:20
    
@J.R. that'll make you fly like a cheese stick - kissthisguy.com/… –  WernerCD Sep 5 '13 at 13:51
    
@J.R. there's a bathroom on the right if you want some privacy. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Sep 5 '13 at 15:10
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