There are enough puzzles and bewilderments in the English Language to drive most folks crazy. At the very least, it seems that many folks just stop trying to bother with correct spelling and structure.
While all languages do shift and evolve over time, such shifts happen faster in languages with so many different sources of confusion. Indeed, sources are the key problem, for English is a bastard language. It has no true direct heritage of its own, but has come about by means of borrowing from many other languages. We have old Norse, some Gaelic, German, French, Latin, Spanish--and others--a little bit of everyone else's native tongues. This was the history and development of English. No wonder it can have such confusing spellings, and such a wide variety of meanings for a single word. And...the faster a language changes, the more confusing things get. So...help hold the line and slow down the pace of change by using the correct words and spellings! You will be the ultimate beneficiary.
In looking up definitions for homophones (words sounding alike, but spelled differently, and with different meanings), we find that many of these sound-alikes have come into the language from different root languages. "Ambulance" and "ambulatory" are words that come to mind to examine this issue. While not true homophones, because they are, in fact, different words with slightly different endings, and therefore different pronunciations, they both begin the same way. This would lead most logical folks to figure that they must have come to us from the same root.
Now, of course, someone who is 'ambulatory' is able to walk about on their own, while someone needing a ride in an 'ambulance' is certainly not 'ambulatory.' Contradictory, yes. But, the two words did not come to us from the same root language, but from two different ones. The sound-alike component is pure coincidence.
Other words that sound alike but mean very different things get folks into trouble on a daily basis. At best, they make themselves look foolish and uneducated with these errors; at worst, serious misunterstandings could arise with who knows what consequences.
There is a trio of words on my mind today which fall into this category. I have seen numerous errors with these very recently, prompting my decision to discuss them here.
We have "peak," "peek," and "pique." All share identical pronunciation, yet each has a very different meaning than the others, so it is critically important to use them correctly.
"Peak," of course, means the very top, as in "peak performance," or summit, as a mountain's "peak."
"Peek," is a sly look-see, as to "peek" through a fence to view what is happening on the other side, or a game of "peek-a-boo" with a baby.
"Pique," on the other hand, has more of a meaning of stimulation, usually used in the sense of "to pique one's curiosity." In other words, to drop a hint to stimulate others' interest in what comes next. They do this daily on the news broadcasts, telling you just a little bit about the next news bit "...coming right up after this break." In the broadcast business, they call this a teaser. The effect, though, is to make you sufficiently curious to stay tuned through the commercials to see the next segment....they have piqued your curiosity.
Just when you thought things were confusing enough, "pique" also has a second meaning, that of being in a state of anger or irritation. People are said to say (or do) unfortunate things, which they may later regret, "...in a fit of pique."
While all three words sound the same, they are very different in print. In hearing them, you choose the appropriate meaning through the context in which they are used. In print, you have to know the correct word to use. If a writer has used the wrong word, you must then rely on context to determine what they meant to say. I ran across this just the other day: someone was on Twitter, plugging their online store, and had posted, "..take a peak at my new items." Incorrect word! No one is going to the top of anything, or climbing mountains in order to view things in an online shop.
If a visual cue to remember would help, then think of it this way: visualize "peak" written thusly: peAk. The top of the 'A' represents a mountain peak, hence, the sense of 'top' or 'summit.'
For "peek," visualize the two 'e's in the middle with pupils added, so they become eyes, "peeking" out to see what they can see.
For "pique," however, a visual is harder. Just think of it by its sense of being 'curious,' (or irritated) and as "that one with the funny spelling." ;-)