Common Homophone Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

by classicalgeek

They're? Their? There? Your? You're? Weather? Whether? How do you choose?

There are far too many people out there with sloppy writing, who are making mistakes in their word choices, and those writers end up appearing uneducated because they have not properly understood how to make the correct word choice amongst words that sound alike. Yes, homophone is the technical term for words that sound the same or nearly the same (and has nothing to do with either communication devices or sexual orientation). Believe it or not, I've actually seen people make every one of these mistakes. So let's dive into this confusing morass of similar words and untangle the mess!

There is no reason to get discouraged, even though the list is long; simply practice one of these per day, and in a few weeks you will have these homonym choices under control!

Help is On the Way!

The reason you make the wrong choices is very easy to understand. Even the best of writers have off days. I've caught a word choice error in many a respected author's published works. However, many writers seem to be careless in their internal pronunciation, and this leads to word choice errors. Most people hear the words in their head as they write, so if the words sound alike, or if you are not conscientious about your pronunciation, then you might end up choosing the wrong word. One of the ways in which you can choose the right word, if the words don't sound exactly alike, is to clean up your pronunciation by making clear differences when you say a, e, and i; s and x; s and z; and so on. Sometimes it is because you may not understand how the word is constructed (that is, the use of prefixes, roots, and suffixes and their meanings). And sometimes, yes, you just forget to pay attention!  Over time many of these can be fixed by monitoring your speech carefully. Examples of pronunciation errors are: affect and effect; loose and lose; accept and except; advice and advise; than and then; and many others. Therefore, the first step in correcting these word choice errors is to correct your speech so that the words sound different and cannot be confused. You can use anything from a simple recording on your voicemail to an elaborate software program like Dragon Dictation to help you make these distinctions.

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How Good Are You?

I get confused by . . .

Pronounce Better, Spell Better: Part One

A and E
  • Accept, except: accept means everything is okeydokey; except means "wait a minute, what about . . .?"
  • Affect, effect: these can be either nouns or verbs. Most likely, affect is the verb and effect is the noun.
  • Then, than: the "e" means it's associated with the order of events.
  • Allude, elude: allude is to refer to something; elude means to not get caught.
  • Altar, alter: the second "a" makes it religious.
  • Currant, current: think "e" for electricity or events; "a" is a fruit.
  • Dual, duel: dual is two; duel is a fight.
  • Naval, navel: naval is ships. Navel is your bellybutton.
  • Vary, very: Vary means not all the same; very is much.

All of these word choices can be distinguished by a careful pronunciation of the letters "a" and "e." Practice speaking these words until you can clearly hear the difference in sounds. Then it will not be so difficult to remember which meaning goes with which word.

A note about affect: if the emphasis on affect is on the second syllable, it is a verb. If the emphasis is on the first syllable, it's a noun.

Pronounce Better, Spell Better: Part Two

E and I

The "short" forms of e and i cause a lot of confusion. Again, with practice and attention, you will be able to distinguish between the different forms of these words, and save yourself from even more mistakes.

  • Complement, compliment (the first means something goes with something else; the second should be able to follow the word "my," as in "My, you look nice!)
  • Elicit, illicit (elicit means to draw out; illicit has the same form as illegal)
  • Eminent, immanent, imminent (eminent means distinguished; immanent means inside (metaphysically); imminent means any second now)
  • Counsel, council (counsel is advice; council is a meeting)
  • Desperate, disparate (disparate means separate from; desperate is a feeling)
  • Sit, set: sit is what you do with your rear end; most everything else is set.

Pronounce Better, Spell Better: Part Three

Other commonly-confused combinations
  • Allusion, illusion: the one with the "i" is what magicians do, so think of the "i" like the magician's wand
  • Capital, capitol: the one with the "o" is only the actual building
  • Principal, principle: the one with the "a" means a person or money; the one with the "e" is a rule)
  • Precede, proceed: the "o" means go ahead; the other means going first
  • Amoral, immoral: the a means without; the im- means against
  • Exercise, exorcise: if you are possessed by a demon, you need someone to exorcise you. Otherwise it's exercise.
  • Aural, oral: think of the "o" like your mouth wide open at the dentist; the other is your ears
  • Bazaar, bizarre: three occurrences of "a" means you're going to pull out your credit card
  • Censure, censor: censure means to scold someone so you are sure they don't do it again; censor means to keep someone from communicating something
  • Flaunt, flout: flaunt means a showoff; flout means to openly break the rules/laws
  • Gamble, gambol: Gamble is to place wagers; gambol is to cavort.
  • Palate, palette: the accents are on different syllables; palette is colors, palate is taste or anatomy
  • Pedal, peddle: the "a" means your feet are involved; the other is selling stuff
  • Personnel, personal: personnel is the people that operate something; personal is private.
  • Prescribe, proscribe: the e involves the doctor; the o means don't do it
  • Foreword, forward: forward is the direction; foreword is a part of a book
  • Lesson, lessen: lesson is what you learn; lessen means less
  • Due, dew, do: both of the first two words should have a "y" sound in front of the vowel. Due means owing; dew is what collects on the grass on a summer day; do is the general-purpose action verb
  • Allude, elude, illude: allude means to refer to something; elude is to escape capture; illude is to trick someone (related to illusion)
  • You'll, Yule: the first is the contraction for you will or you shall; the second refers to a holiday.
  • Carol, carrel: Carol is a name or something you sing; carrel is where you study.
  • Worn, warn: worn is the past tense of wear; warn is to alert someone.

Pronounce Better, Spell Better: Part Four

Similar consonants
  • Shudder, shutter: shudder is what you do when you watch a horror film, or have to speak in public. Shutter is what you do to the windows when zombies are outside (think "shut"). Cameras and windows have shutters.
  • Loose, lose: loose means not fastened, or not tight. Lose means to make the opposite of found.
  • Grisly, grizzly: Grisly usually refers to crime scenes or slaughterhouses; grizzly is the bear, and grizzled usually refers to hair or beards.
  • Precedent, president: President is an official title. Everything else is precedent.
  • Advice, advise: advice is the noun; advise is the verb.
  • Seize, cease: seize is to grab. Cease is to stop.
  • Ether, either: Ether is a drug; everything else is either.
  • Tents, tense: tense is not relaxed; tents is the plural of tent.
  • Devise, device: a device is a physical object; devise is a verb.

Understanding Apostrophes: Part One

Contractions

Yes, it's true. Many writers do not understand the use of apostrophes, and they therefore end up using words like they're and their, or it's and its, incorrectly. There are a few simple rules to help you understand this.

The first is that apostrophes can be used to indicate missing letters. Thus "you're" means "you are," "we're" means we are, and "it's" means "it is." This is called a contraction, and here is a list of common contractions that are often confused with other words:

  • You're: you are
  • They're: they are
  • We're: we are
  • It's: it is
  • Won't: will not (originally, it was "wo'n't, as you will see if you read an urtext edition of Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There), and yes, there is a word, "wont" (without an apostrophe), that means something different
  • Can't: cannot and yes, there is a word, "cant" (without an apostrophe), that means something different
  • He'll: he will
  • I'll: I will, not to be confused with ill, meaning not well
  • She'd: she had, or she would; don't confuse it with shed!
  • Who's: who is
  • Could've, would've, should've: could have (not of), would have, should have

Most of these have different pronunciations (if you are careful) than the versions without contractions they are so often confused with. So clean up your speech and you'll start writing with correct word choices more often!

Understanding Apostrophes: Part Two

Possession

Ah, you say, but what about possessives? There are apostrophes in possessives, aren't there?

Yes, and no.

Pronouns (I, he, she, you, it, we, they, who) do not take possessive apostrophes. Thinking logically for a moment, if you wouldn't use an apostrophe in "my," why would you use it with "your"? So if your word is a pronoun, never use an apostrophe for the possessive. Understanding this simple rule will eliminate many common word choice errors.

(The pronouns usually involved in apostrophe errors are: yours, hers, their, theirs, ours, and whose.)

Understanding Apostrophes: Part Three

Plurals

Don't do it!

An apostrophe always indicates a possessive (something belonging to something else) or a contraction (a letter missing). If you are using an apostrophe on a plural (more than one of something) that is not also a possessive, you are doing it wrong!

Think carefully about your meaning. I just got an official notice with this mistake the other day.

"Silent" E?

  • Breath, breathe
  • Cloth, clothe
  • Loath, loathe
  • Wreath, wreathe

The first of each of these is a noun; the second is a verb. However, there is a further complication with cloth and clothe, in that there are cloths and clothes. Cloths are pieces of fabric (table cloths, not clothes), and clothes as a noun mean dresses, trousers, skirts, blouses, shirts, coats, stockings, socks, shoes, etc. (There's also clothes as a verb, in case you want to be more confusing!)

Yes, the e on the end is silent, but it changes the pronunciation from a voiceless th to a voiced th.

Missing or Extra Letters

This error is usually made when one of a pair of commonly confused words is missing a letter found in the other word. Some also have pronunciation differences.

  • Aisle, isle: isle is an island (see it?). Aisle is a path, literal or figurative, between two things (as in seats in a theatre, or political parties). Moses created an aisle in the Red Sea, not an isle.
  • Baited, bated: think of the "i" as a worm on a hook.
  • Below, bellow: below is underneath; bellow is to yell. Bellows are what you use to fan the fire.
  • But, butt: butt is the tail (not tale) end of something; but means you have a contradiction.
  • Flounder, founder: the "l" means it's a fish, or you are flopping about like a fish; the other means someone who forms something, such as a company, or runs into trouble, such as a ship sinking beneath the waves.
  • Cord, chord: cord is a string; chord is a group of musical notes, played together. You have vocal cords. An a cappella choir has vocal chords.
  • Cannon, canon: cannon is a gun. Everything else is canon.
  • Conscience, conscious: the first is the sense of right or wrong; the second is being awake and aware.
  • Dinghy, dingy: dinghy is a small boat; everything else is dingy.
  • Finnish, finish: Finnish is something to do with the country Finland. Everything else is finish.
  • Hungary, hungry: Hungary is the country. Everything else is hungry.
  • Strait, straight: straight means not crooked; everything else is strait. People are in strait jackets or straitened circumstances.
  • Loose, lose: Lose means to make unfindable, or to not win. Loose is how you lose something. (Yes, I addressed this earlier. There are two ways to confuse this pair of words.)
  • Where, were: Where is associated with a place; were is the past tense of are
  • Which, witch: witch is what you see at Hallowe'en; everything else is which.
  • Adverse, averse: adverse is against something, averse is reluctance.
  • Poured, pored: the u involves a liquid, including non-Newtonian fluids like ketchup. To examine closely, or to refer to a hole on a surface, is pore.
  • Appraise, apprise: appraise means assess the value of something: think of that second "a for auction." Apprise means to make someone aware.
  • Desert, dessert: note: the phrase is "just deserts," meaning getting what you deserve (deserve has one s). With one s, it also means the hot, dry, sandy place. With two, it means there will probably be something sweet and possibly sticky.
  • Forbear, forebear: the accents are on different syllables, and the one with the extra e means ancestors, literal or metaphorical.
  • Tortuous, torturous: the one with the extra r involves pain, the other is just complicated.
  • Two, too and to: the w is the numeral; the extra "o" means excessive or also.
  • Reign, rein: g stands for government, and you usually reign over something; you rein in (constrain) something.
  • Canvas, canvass: canvas is the fabric; canvass is a poll or police questioning people.
  • Wave, waive: to waive is to forgo something; wave is something physical.
  • Red, read: red is the color. Read is the past tense of read.
  • Reed, read: Reed is the lakeside plant, or something you put in a saxophone. Read is what you're doing right this instant!
  • Toad, towed: toad is the amphibian. Towed is what your car gets when you don't pay the parking meter.
  • Whale, wale: whale is the large oceanic mammal. Everything else is wale.
  • Weather, whether: weather is rain, snow, and whatever else the postman doesn't stop for. Whether involves a choice (the postman doesn't have a choice).
  • Wrest, rest: rest is what you do when you are tired; wrest is to grab.

One Word or Two?

  • Everyday, every day: everyday is ordinary; every day is daily.

 

Y or IE?

  • Junky, junkie: Junky is made out of or resembling junk; junkie is a person addicted to drugs.
  • Hippy, hippie: Hippie is a flower child; hippy means large hips.

Real Homophones

The ones you'll (see what I did there?) just have to memorize
  • Breach, breech: Breach means a hole (sometimes metaphorical); breech is trousers, so yes, it's possible to have breaches in your breeches.
  • Broach, brooch: Broach means to initiate and is a verb; brooch is jewelry.
  • Awl, all: Awl is a tool; anything else is all.
  • Ail, ale: ale is the drink; ail is sick.
  • Beer, bier: beer is the drink. Bier is at a funeral. The confusion arises because "bier" is German for "beer."
  • Break, brake: brake is stop. Everything else is break.
  • Cheep, cheap: cheep is what birds do; cheap is inexpensive or junky.
  • Die, dye: die is to stop living; dye is to make a different color. That's why "Curl up and Dye" is funny for a beauty salon.
  • Flair, flare: flair is panache or style; fires and tempers flare.
  • Flee, flea: flea is the little thing that bites you; flee is run away!
  • Flier, flyer: flier is a pilot; flyer is advertising.
  • Gilt, guilt: guilt is what you feel when you do something wrong; gilt is something to do with gold.
  • Seed, cede: seed is the baby of a plant. Cede is to give up or give away.
  • Peak, peek: This is so common, I have created an image (below) to help you remember. There is another word pronounced the same way, which is not often confused withe the others: pique, which means to irritate or arouse interest.
  • Patience, patients: patience is what you need while waiting in line. Patients are the clients of medical practitioners.
  • Lye, lie: Lye is the chemical in oven and drain cleaners; everything else is lie.
  • Boar, bore: Boar is a wild beast; bore is to drill or to be uninterested.
  • Board, bored: bored is the past tense of bore; board is a large, flat piece of wood.
  • Presence, presents: Presents is what you get from other people on a holiday like Christmas, Hanukkah, or your birthday. Presence is a state of being somewhere.
  • Populous, populace: populous is full of people, like a city; populace is the people as a whole. Populous is an adjective; populace is a noun.
  • Passed, past: past is the time before now. Everything else is passed.
  • Pear/pare/pair: pear is the fruit; pair is two; everything else is pare.
  • Leech/leach: leech is a person or thing that sucks something out of you (blood, energy, etc.); leach is a verb meaning a chemical process of attrition (bleach leaches the color out of clothing)
  • Soul, sole: A soul is immortal; everything else is sole.
  • Stationery, stationary: the "e" is for "envelope."
  • Coarse, course: Coarse is unrefined or large; everything else is course.
  • Horde, hoard: Hoard is always things, including the archaic use, hoarding, meaning a temporary fence around something, or a billboard; horde is a crowd (usually living beings, although horde may refer to intangibles, such as a horde of temptations or thoughts)
  • Cite, sight, site: Cite is to refer to a publication; sight is vision, and site is a place. Thus, a web site (a place on the web).
  • Sun, son: son is male offspring; sun is the bright thing in the sky.
  • Seem, seam: seams is sewing; everything else is seems.
  • Right, write, wright, rite: Right is correct, privilege, or the opposite of left; write is to apply pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard; wright is a noun referring to certain kinds of trades, such as a playwright, wheelwright, cartwright, from the strong form of the verb "work;" and rite refers to a ceremony (related to ritual). Thus a playwright, and not a playwrite; copyright, not copywrite, which is a different word altogether.
  • Way, weigh: Way is a direction; weigh has to do with getting on the scale. Something weighs heavily on you.
  • Tale, tail: tale is a story; what wags or trails is a tail.
  • Hour, our: hour is time. Everything else belongs to us. Sometimes confused with "are," not counting "All your base are belong to us."
  • Wait, weight: Wait involves time; weight involves heaviness.
  • Nay, neigh: Nay is negative; neigh is what a horse does.
  • Threw, through: threw is a ball, a dish, a punch; through is everything else.
  • Knew, new: Remember, the K stands for knowledge!
  • Here, hear: Here involves place; hear involves your ears. The correct use is "hear, hear!," meaning, "Listen to what this person is saying." "Here, here" is what you say to your dog.
  • Aloud, allowed: Aloud means you can hear it; allowed means permissible.
  • Incite, insight: incite means to rile up; insight is that "Aha!" moment.
  • Shone, shown: shone is the past tense of shine; shown is the past perfect of show.
  • Waist, waste: waist is the middle part of someone's body. Everything else is waste.
  • Discrete, discreet: discrete is separate; discreet means trying to not be noticed.
  • Suite, sweet: sweet is dessert, baby animals, or anything that makes you go "Awww." Suite is a group: musical pieces, rooms, clothing, and the like.
  • Serge, surge: serge has to do with fabric; everything else is surge.
  • Suite, suit: Again, suite is a group. Suit is clothing or preference. There is no "Will build to suite"!
  • Gate, gait: the word with "i" has to do with walking. Everything else is "gate."
  • Slay, sleigh: sleigh is the mode of transportation. Everything else is slay. Be extra careful at Christmastime not to give the kiddos nightmares.
  • Roll, role: role is the part we play, whether as a stage actor or an actor in the drama that is life; role typically follows the expression "play a . . . ." Everything else is roll.
  • Fair, fare: fare is what you pay, or how you are doing. Everything else is fair.
  • One, won: "Won" is the past tense of "win." "One" is the number.
  • Vain, vane, vein: vain is for someone concerned with appearances; vane shows which way the wind is blowing; vein are those blue spidery things in bodies that direct blood to the heart.
  • Whole, hole: whole means entire; hole has something missing. But holistic, not wholistic. Yes, it's confusing.
  • Flower, flour: flour is what you use to make bread with; flowers attract bees.
  • Sow, sew: sew involves joining things; sow is to distribute something physical or metaphorical (seeds, suspicions)
  • Freeze, frieze: frieze is art; everything else is freeze
  • Buy, by, bye: buy means pull out your wallet; by is an attribution like a byline for a writer; bye means farewell, see you later.
  • Plane, plain: plain is either not fancy or a large open expanse of land. Plane can be the thing that flies through the air, the tool in your workshop, or a mathematical concept.
  • Toe, tow: toe is the end of your foot; tow is to pull. It's "toe the line" if you need to follow the rule, "tow the line" if you're pulling a tractor out of the mud.
  • Steak, stake: steak involves meat; stake is everything else.
  • Tees, tease: Tees are what you wear on your body, or use on the golf course. Tease is what you do to hair or a living being.
  • Great, grate: grate means to divide into small pieces; everything else is great. You are grateful (full of gratitude), never greatful!
  • Doe, dough: doe is a deer; dough involves baking or money

And finally:

Bear, bare: Bare means to uncover; anything else is bear. 

Updated: 02/03/2017, classicalgeek
 
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frankbeswick on 07/10/2015

Vane, vain and vein. Another triplet

classicalgeek on 07/10/2015

Sight, cite, and site is a triplet which people also commonly confuse.
With Unix currently beginning to gain popularity, I expect that gnu might make a comeback in common parlance, but my mother always insisted that we make the y-sound in new and knew, so we never confused that pair with nu and gnu!

blackspanielgallery on 07/10/2015

My favorite ones are where there are three or more sound alike words. Pear, pair, and pare come to mind. But, my real favorite is new, knew, nu (Greek letter) and gnu (animal).

classicalgeek on 06/16/2015

I am glad to hear that from a professional. Many thanks!

frankbeswick on 06/16/2015

As one who still does private tuforing in English I find your work very useful. Thank you.

classicalgeek on 06/16/2015

Thank you!

Guest on 06/16/2015

This is awesome!!!! I loved it. Great idea for an article!

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