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). 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.

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)

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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

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.

Understanding Apostrophes: Part One


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
  • 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


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


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.

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.
  • 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.
  • Breath, breathe: the first is a noun, the second is a verb.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Loath, loathe: the one with e is the verb, just like breath/breathe and wreath/wreathe.
  • Tortuous, torturous: the one with the extra r involves pain, the other is just complicated.
  • Wreath, wreathe: the one with the e is the verb again.
  • 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!

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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) 
  • 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).
  • Seems, seams: 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.
  • 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.

And finally:

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

Updated: 07/02/2015, classicalgeek
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


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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