Homophones: some examples

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Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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A homophone is a word that sounds like another word, but often is spelled differently.

  • Here are some common ones:
    • To, too or two? (You may want to see the page at To - too - two.)
      • Two is the number '2'.
      • Too (pronounced long) means:
  1. as well, also. "I like coffee. I like tea too."
  2. over-much, surplus. "The weather is too hot for me."
      • To is the spelling for all other meanings of words that sound like this. It tends to be pronounced very short. Sometimes it sounds like 'teh', or can be written (in slang) as 'gotta'
    • Your or you're? (See the page at Your - you're (yore).)
    • Their, they're or there? (See the page at Their - there - they're.)
  • Now, some patterns of spelling:
    • Words that mean 'a place' (here, there, everywhere, etc.) are all formed like here: ending in the three letters '-e-' + '-r-' + '-e-', in that order:
  1. If you mean 'in this place', say here. (But note: you hear with your ears.)
  2. If you mean 'in that place', use there (th + (h)ere).
  3. If you mean 'which place', use where (wh + (h)ere). This applies to everywhere too. (And nowhere.)
    • Words that are contracted (short) forms of are (you're, we're, they're, etc) all show the shortening [(a)re] by an apostrophe ('). You are → you're, we are → we're, etc.
  • Next, some simple guides:
  1. Their = of them. "have you seen their house?"
  2. They're = they are. "they're moving in today."
  3. There is the spelling for all other meanings of words that sound like this. "I left it there, in that chair". "There are three things I want you to remember." "There, there, have you hurt yourself?" "There's no chance you can get a ticket?"
  4. Your is like their. It means 'belonging to', or 'of', you. "It's your turn"; "Your assignment this week is ..."
  5. You're is like they're. It means 'you are'. "You're doing well". "You're to write an essay about ..."
  6. Where is a place, like here.
  7. Were is like was. So Where were you is the right way round.
  8. Its = of it
  9. It's = it is

  • Some commonly confused words . These are a few of the pairs that are often used wrongly. There are many of these. Some are more commonly met in some subject areas, and rare outside them. Keep your own list of the homophones you need to be careful of.
    • Compliment or complement?
A compliment, or a complimentary remark, is something you pay someone when you want to be nice: "What a nice dress!", "That's very clever", "You played very well" etc. Sometimes complimentary means 'free': e.g. complimentary tickets. A complement, or a complementary thing, is something that completes something: e.g. a ship's complement is her crew; her assignment has a complementary Guide to experimental techniques; yin is complementary to yang. See further Complement - compliment.
    • Principle or principal?
A principle is an underlying idea, or a moral belief, etc. A principal is either a Head (e.g. a sort of Head-teacher); or an adjective describing the most important thing, "The principal point in this lecture is ...". See further principal - principle.
    • Practice or practise?
A practice is a noun - something that you do, "there is a football practice tonight"; "I did 5 hours' piano practice yesterday"; "my usual practice is to warm up for five minutes first"; "she is in General Practice". (If you can say "a practice" in your sentence, then it is practice.)
To practise is a verb - to do something, e.g. "I practised my vocabulary last night"; "he practised his speech in front of a mirror." See further Practice - practise. (If you can change the tense (say "practised") in your sentence, then it is practise.)
This distinction doesn't hold in American dialects of English. See also Practice - practise.
    • Affect or effect?
To affect is a verb - to do something, e.g. "she was affected deeply by the death of her husband"; "to raise taxes affects everyone". An effect is a noun - a thing, or result. "Cause and effect are opposites." "The effects of the war were ...". Sometimes effects means possessions: "Carry your personal effects with you". (There is a verb - which you are advised to avoid - to effect. It means, roughly, to carry out, or to put into effect: "You will effect my orders immediately.") See further Affect - effect.
    • Found or Founded?
To find is a verb, roughly the opposite of 'to lose'. Its past tense is found. "Yesterday I found a five pound note"; "He found the reference in his textbook". Confusingly, there is also a verb to found, which means to lay the foundations of, or to begin. Its past tense is founded. "Robert Owen founded the socially experimental community of New Lanark"; "King Alfred is supposed to have founded the British Navy"; "Bill Gates founded Microsoft". See also Find - found - founded.
    • Lie or lay - or laid?
To lie is an intransitive verb - i.e. it has no Object. You lie down. To lay is a transitive verb - i.e. it has an Object; you lay something down Confusingly, the past tense of to lie is lay: "she lay down for a moment at three o'clock". The past tense of to lay is laid: "They laid down their weapons". See further Laid - lay - lie - lied.