A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Homophones

The English language is confusing even for native English speakers. Apostrophes end up in the wrong places and some verbs are beyond irregular. Some words are either nouns or verbs, depending on where you place the syllable stress.

To be clear, EXport (noun) and exPORT (verb) are not homophones. They are the same word and they represent the same concept. They simply have different functions depending on how you say them; their spelling remains the same. This type of word doesn’t have a category or specific name; it includes roughly 40 English words.

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Homophones belong to a class of words called ‘homonyms’. Homonyms include homographs and homophones.

As you might guess, homographs have the same spelling but different meanings, and their pronunciation may be different. The word ‘row’ is a homograph. The ‘propel a boat’ and ‘all in a line’ rows are also homophones because they sound alike. The third ‘row’, meaning ‘having an argument’, is a homograph because it sounds different.

Some scholars insist that a homonym must be both a homophone and a homograph. To date, there’s no consensus on that point. So we examine homophones as a class of words by themselves.

Frequently Used Homophones

Of all the English language’s homophones, ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ has to be the most confusing. The first one marks a location and the last one means ‘belonging to them’. The middle one is a contraction of ‘they are’.

Social media delivers us constant examples of this homophone’s misuse. One recent example of such includes “Their taking their kids their on Saturday”. Auto-correct and autofill might make this problem worse.

The homophones ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ also crop up a lot. One student I know believed that the second form – the contraction, was simply a more elegant way to spell the first form (the possessive).

You might have seen ‘bare’ instead of ‘bear’ in a post intended to exclaim “I can’t bear it!”. Or “I’m going to brake his neck!” instead of the correct ‘break’.

One of the best ways to avoid such homophone mistakes on social media is to type your words. When you use talk-to-text, the machine doesn’t know which homophone you want to use.

Maybe future Artificial Intelligence (AI) versions will be able to understand context. Until then, your spelling skills are your best guarantee against such homophone mistakes.

How to Reduce Homophone Mistakes

To reduce the chance of using the wrong homophone, you must have a sizable vocabulary. That means knowing words as well as how they’re spelt and what they mean. The homophone ‘break’ serves as a good example of such.

We know that that word means something suddenly separating into pieces. It can also mean ‘taking a rest’. However, that doesn’t help us decide if that’s the word to use in ‘Give me a break!’ Many people insist it must be ‘brake’ because it means ‘stop’. As in ‘Stop what you’re doing!’ – the definition of ‘give me a break’.

Deep knowledge of the English language will spare you from (albeit clever) mistakes such as these. But developing language skills takes a long time. While you work through your English tuition, a few tricks can help you prevent homophone mistakes.

Collocation means drawing connections to concepts homophones represent to choose the right one. Would you ‘write a paper’ or ‘right a paper’ for school? Do we fly on ‘planes’ or ‘plains’? Do you like to ‘reed books’ or ‘read books’?

Collocating is a bit like putting homophones in context to see which word makes sense. Let’s revisit ‘bear/bare’: “I can’t bare it!” means you’re unable to uncover something. By contrast, “I can’t bear it!” means it’s an impossibly heavy burden to carry. Which would you use to describe a heartbreak?

Memory tricks work well to sort out the ‘there/they’re/their’ homophone. For the one meaning ‘location’, think: ‘The difference between here and there is T’. For the contraction, simply expand it. For the possessive, focus on the I – that letter features in ‘mine’ as well as ‘theirs’.

Remembering homophone pairs and groups will also help you decide which word is right for what you want to express. When you learn them as standalone words, you might find it harder to make connections between them – to collocate them. It’s also harder to remember their respective definitions and how to use them.

These are just a few quick ways to master homophones. However, they are no substitute for spelling and vocabulary mastery. When you ‘meet’ a new word, learn everything you can about it, including which contexts to use it in. That’s your best guarantee of understanding homophones and using them correctly.