Philosophy

Homophones: the Most Confusing Words in English


What exactly is a homophone, I hear you ask? This post will take you through the meaning of homophony and the word-based conundrums they cause.

So, what is a homophone?

The word “homophone” is used to describe a word that sounds the same as another word, but that has a different meaning. It comes from the Greek words “homo”, meaning “same”, and “phone”, meaning “voice”. The two (or more) words may be spelled differently, but just to make life difficult, they can also be spelled the same. The potential for confusion for native and non-native speakers alike is, unfortunately, great.

Just to confuse you a little more (last time, promise), there are several words that we use to refer to different types of homophone.

Homophone – all words and phrases that sound the same but have different meanings

Homograph – words that sound and are spelled the same but have different meanings

Homonym – words that have the same spelling but a different meaning

Heterograph – words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings

Multinym – words that sound the same but have more than two different meanings and spellings

Common examples of homophones

Below, we introduce you to some of the most common homophones – those that you’re likely to meet with in either day-to-day conversation or in your academic work. There are too many to include all of them, but these examples should at least help you with some of them and stand as a warning that the English language has plenty of pitfalls for you to be aware of!

To, two, too

Lots of native English-speakers get confused about this one. Luckily, though, these three words have very different uses, and the examples below should help you remember them.

To – used in the infinitive form of a verb, such as “to walk”, and also to mean “towards”.

Too – this means “as well” or “also”; for example, “me too”.

Two – this is the number; for example, “two days ago”.

 

There, their, they’re

Again, even native English-speakers get this one wrong, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with it!

There – this refers to a place that is not here; for instance, “over there”. It can also be used to state something, such as “There is an argument to suggest…”, or (in a slightly old-fashioned way) to comfort someone: “There there, it will be alright.”

Their – this indicates possession: something belonging to them. For example, “we could use their boat”.

They’re – this is a shortening of “they are”. For example, “They’re going to be here at 12pm”.

 

Your/you’re

This has to be one of the most commonly confused aspects of the English language, and the fact that so many people get it wrong is a pet hate of every grammar purist in the UK. If you can master the difference, you’ll be doing better than a lot of Brits!

Your – this is the second person possessive form, indicating something belonging to you. For example, “This is your decision.”

You’re – short for “you are”, as in “You’re amazing.”

Bonus: Yore – you’re not very likely to come across this one, but it’s an old-fashioned way of referring to a time long ago. For example, “In the days of yore” means a similar thing to “In olden times”.

 

By/buy/bye

Another one on the long list of commonly confused words, these three are easily differentiated with some examples.

By – this preposition refers to something beside, near or through. For example, “There’s an ice cream van over there by that tree.”

Buy – this is a verb meaning to purchase something. For instance, “let’s go and buy a car.”

Bye – short for “goodbye”, this is an expression used to bid someone farewell. Real grammar sticklers would probably insist on using an apostrophe at the beginning to indicate the absence of the word “good” – that is, “’bye” – but this is old-fashioned, so you don’t need to include one.

 

Stationary/stationery

One letter makes a big difference with these two, completely altering the meaning.

Stationary – this word is used to describe something that is motionless (not moving). For example, “the cars were stationary in the traffic jam.”

Stationery – pens, pencils and other things you write with or on, for use in the office or when studying.

 

Compliment/complement

The adjective forms of these two words add an extra layer of complexity for you to contend with.

Compliment – this is a nice thing you say to someone to flatter them, for example, “You look nice today.” The adjective of this is “complimentary”, which has two meanings. It can refer to something expressing praise – such as “He was most complimentary, saying how pretty I looked.” But just to add to the confusion, “complimentary” can also mean “free of charge”. For example, “the airline provided complimentary drinks for those delayed”.

Complement – this is something that goes well with something else. For example, “the dress complemented the colour of her hair.” The adjective form is “complementary”, meaning things that go together, used as follows: “The two of them provided complementary skills; he was good at writing, while she was good at sales.”

 

Here/hear

You’ll find a cunning way to remember the difference between these two under the definition for “hear” below.

Here – this refers to something being in one’s current location – for example, “There is a strange smell here”. You can also use it when introducing something, such as “Here is something I know you’ll like.”

Hear – this means to detect a sound. If it helps you remember it, consider the fact that the word “hear” contains the word “ear”! You can also say “Hear, hear” to indicate that you agree with someone. This bizarre phrase is a shortened form of a 17th century phrase used in Parliament, “Hear him, hear

 

Peace/piece

John Lennon famously sang “Give peace a chance”. Make sure you don’t upset Beatles fans by getting the spelling right!

Peace – this is the absence of war, as referred to by Lennon in 1969. The word also refers more generally to a feeling of contentment, for example “The woods were very peaceful.”

Piece – spelled this way, the word means a unit or portion of something, such as “a piece of cake”. To “say your piece” means to state your opinion about something, while “giving someone a piece of your mind” means to tell them – usually in anger – exactly what you think of a situation.

 

Stare/stair

These identical-sounding words both derive from Old English words with Germanic origins.

Stare – the verb “to stare” refers to the act of gazing intently at something. As a noun, it refers to the look itself – for example “a long, cold stare”.

Stair – this refers to a single step, or one of a number of steps, used to connect two different levels, with variants including “staircase” (the complete set of steps), “stairway” (the steps and their surrounding walls), “stairwell” (the shaft occupied by the staircase), “downstairs” (the bottom level) and “upstairs” (the upper level).

 

Know/no

As this example illustrates, it’s amazing how much difference it makes to put unlikely letters at the beginning and end of a word.

Know – “to know” means “to be aware of something”; for example, “I know he is afraid.” The K at the beginning is one of a number of instances in the English language of a silent K, so it’s pronounced in exactly the same way as “no” – even though if you take the K off, you have the word “now”, which is pronounced in a way that rhymes it with “how”. Just another example of unexpected exceptions to English language rules!

No – the opposite of “yes”, used to indicate the negative. Bizarrely, “no.” – with a full stop after it – is also used to abbreviate the word “number”. For example, “No. of pages: 150.”


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