For most people, writing is not easy. Converting one’s thoughts to writing is hard, in part, because we don’t speak the way we are supposed to write and we’re not always entirely clear about what we want to say or the best way to say it. That is true in any language.
Writing the English language has even more challenges. For every rule there are always exceptions. Words often have multiple meanings, spellings and sounds. Nevertheless, writing is a skill used daily by most people in their personal and professional lives. While no one expects the average person to be a master writer, it’s important to at least be a proficient one.
Thankfully, technology can help, to some extent. Correct spelling is the easiest part to get right. Spell check on most computers and devices automatically eliminates the most common spelling errors, but it doesn’t catch mistakes that involve homophones, homonyms, homographs or heteronyms. Those are words in the English language have the same sounds, spelling or meanings. These are the cause of many of the mistakes people make in writing. To make it a bit easier, here’s a little “cheat sheet” to keep at your desk for future reference. This can help avoid some of the most common mistakes.
Homophones, Homonyms, Homographs and Heteronyms
What do these terms mean and is it important to know the difference? Homographs are words which are spelled the same, but with more than one meaning. Homographs may be pronounced the same, called homonyms, or they may be pronounced differently, called heteronyms or heterophones. And then there are homophones, which are a type of homonym which sound the same, but have different spellings and meanings. It’s a wonder anyone can keep it all straight.
Here’s a little chart that can help.
|Homograph (two types: either homonym or heteronym)|
|same or different||same||different||See below for examples of homonyms and heteronyms|
|Same||same or different||different||not (no) and knot (fastening)
bow (tie) and bow (weapon)
|Heteronym or heterophone|
|different||same||different||desert (dry climate) and desert (abandon)|
|same||different||carrot (eat) carat (diamond) and caret (an edit mark)|
|same||different||different||Write (compose) and right (correct)|
Let’s look at each and the most common mistakes that arise from them.
Homonyms are words that sound the same but may or may not be spelled the same and have different meanings. Here is an example with the same spelling. The word ‘fair’ has many meanings. It can mean what is right, just, equitable and honorable. Such as: “The decision in the case was fair.” It can also mean to be impartial. Such as, “The umpire was fair in his calls during the baseball game.” It can also mean something that is appropriate under the circumstances. Such as: To be fair, this subject poses special problems.” It can also mean to have a light complexion or hair. “He had blond hair and fair skin.” And it can also mean an event that has rides, games and competitions. Such as: “The boy’s science project won first prize in the county fair.” With homonyms, what is meant depends on how the word is used in context. Thus, it can be challenging for those when listening to someone using homonyms or when reading text using homonyms. Thankfully, though, they are not much of a hindrance in writing as long as you are clear on all the meanings of a particular word to ensure that the reader doesn’t get confused or misunderstand what is meant.
Beware of Homophones
However, homophones are much more challenging when writing. Homophones are a type of homonym. These words are pronounced the same way but are spelled differently and have different meanings. People will often use the wrong spelling of a homophone in a sentence. Spell check will not help with these because these are real words that are just not being used correctly. There are over 400 homophones in the English language. Here are 28 of the ones most commonly used incorrectly. Learn when to use each.
- Fair and fare
Fair = just; Fare = fee paid for use
- Pair and pear
Pair = couple; Pear = fruit
- You’re and your
You’re = contraction of you are; Your = belonging to
- There, they’re and their
There = place; They’re = contraction of they are;
Their = belonging or relating to certain people
- Our and hour
Our = belonging to us; Hour = time
- To, too, and two
To = (preposition) movement from one thing to another;
Too = excessively; Two = quantity of 2
- Creek and creak
Creak = harsh, high-pitched sound when something is moved
Creek = a stream or brook
- Rein, rain and reign
Reign = hold royal office; Rein = long, narrow strap;
Rain = condensed moisture that falls in drops
- Peak, peek and pique
Peak = pointed top; Peek = look in furtive manner;
Pique = to stimulate interest or to feel irritated or resentful
(also a homonym)
- Weary and wary
Weary = feeling or showing tiredness; Wary = cautious or circumspect
- Passed and past
Passed = moved in a specific direction; Past = gone by in time
- Merry, marry and Mary
Merry = happy; Marry = wed; Mary = female name
- Stair and stare
Stair = set of steps; Stare = look fixedly
- Pale and pail
Pale = light in color; Pail = bucket
- Mail and male
Mail = correspondence; Male = masculine gender
- Prey and pray
Prey = hunted animal; Pray = address to a deity
- Waist and waste
Waste = trash or discarded item or to use carelessly (also a homonym); Waist = midpoint in the abdomen
- Weigh and way
Weigh = how heavy or to consider (also a homonym); Way = a method or style or a road or track (also a homonym)
- Neigh and nay
Neigh = sound made by a horse; Nay = rather or no or negative vote (also a homonym)
- It’s and its
Its = belonging to; It’s = contraction of it is
- See and sea
See = perceive with one’s eyes or to deduce (also a homonym); Sea = body of water
- Allot and a lot
Allot = to apportion; A lot = a large amount (By the way, alot is not a word!)
- Principal and principle
Principal = first in order of importance or main person in charge or sum of money invested (also a homonym); Principle = a concept or a fundamental source or the basis of something (also a homonym)
- Yoke and yolk
Yoke = a harness or to tether; Yolk = yellow part of an egg
- Hey and hay
Hey = express surprise or attract attention; Hay = fodder
- You and ewe
You = referring to a person; Ewe = female sheep
- Site and sight
Site = area on which a building is constructed or a website or to put in a position (also a homonym); Sight = vision or to observe (also a homonym)
- By, bye and buy
By = indicating the means of achieving something
Bye = next round of competition or to say farewell (also a homonym)
Buy = purchase or to accept the truth of (also a homonym)
(To get a full list of homophones for your reference, click here.)
Homographs are words that have the same spelling but may have the same or different sound. These are more difficult for people learning to speak English than for those writing English. Take, for example, the word bass. Bass can be a type of fish and it can also be a musical instrument or a low note. Bass, the fish, is pronounced with a soft a, similar to the word pass. But bass, the instrument or the low note, is pronounced with a long a, similar to the word case.
Heteronyms are homographs that have the same spelling but a different sound. For example, tear is a homograph. When pronounced as “teer”, tear refers to the drops secreted by the eye in reaction to emotion. But when pronounced as “tair”, it means to rip or break into pieces. What is challenging with homographs is to know how to pronounce the word based on the context of the sentence. For example, “He shed a tear when his business closed.” In that context, it would be pronounced “teer”. On the other hand, “Losing his job would tear him to pieces.” In that context, it would be pronounced “tair”. This is much harder on readers than writers.
To make matters worse, as you can see, there are many words that qualify as homophones, homonyms, homographs and heteronyms. For example, the words bow and bough. These have multiple meanings, sounds and spelling. bough = tree limb, bow = front of a boat, bow = at the waist, bow = tied with ribbon, and bow = shoots arrows. That makes it a homophone, a heteronym and a homograph. Using the example above, the words bass and base are an example of a homophone, heteronym and a homograph, in which bass can either mean the fish or the instrument or a low note, and base can either mean the lowest part on which something sits or it can also mean a center of operations. Good grief. It’s no wonder writing English is hard!
The good news is that to write well, one does NOT really need to know the difference between homophones, homonyms, homographs or heteronyms. It just helps to be aware that words can sound the same, be spelled the same and/or be pronounced the same or differently. When in doubt, double-check not only the spelling but meaning of words that have multiple meanings or might be spelled in multiple ways. Good writing is about ensuring that the reader understands what the writer is communicating with total clarity. It does not need to be poetic or eloquent, but it must be clear. Next week, we’ll wrap up our writing series with a focus on the words people write incorrectly most.
Quote of the Week
“Good writing is like a windowpane.” George Orwell
© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.