It's important to be able to distinguish between homophones when writing. The results of using the wrong word in your writing can range from confusing to amusing. In the end, if you misuse too many homophones, your reader might just come to the conclusion that they can't trust your writing at all.
Writing accidents happen, and even the most seasoned writers make mistakes with homophones. And what's worse, it's likely that your spellchecker won't have caught the mistaken words. This post will answer the question what are homophones? And it will give you 5 tips for learning how to find and correct them before you accidentally embarrass yourself.
What Are Homophones?
English, with its millions of words adapted from languages across the globe and throughout history has an abundance of those confusing words called homophones.
Homo comes from the Greek word for "same," and phone comes from the Greek word for "sound." Therefore, homophone means "same sound," and we use it to describe two or more different words with the same sound but different meanings, words like "pair/pear," and "peak/pique/peek."
There are over 7700 homophones in the English language and counting! This means that chances are high that you will mix up a couple of words at some point in your writing.
Some of the more common examples of homophones include these words:
Of course, this list is by no means comprehensive. Who has time for a table with 7700+ entries? However, if you want more examples, you can check out this extensive list of homophones.
Also note, this post covers the broad category of homophones—two words that sound the same but have different meanings.
You may also be aware of the related linguistic phenomena of homonyms, heterographs, heteronyms, and homographs. This blog post is not going to get into the difference between these, but you might find this Venn diagram to be a big help:
Credit: Venn diagram by Will Heltsley (Creative Commons License)
Why Should You Care About Homophones?
What would happen if you followed a cookbook recipe filled with misused homophones? You could end up cooking a moose for dessert (instead of a mousse). While this might go over well in some rural parts of Canada, you don't want to show up at your neighbor's cocktail party with a cup of moose.
Misused homophones would make cooking a disaster. You would intend to cook one thing, but you'd cook something else entirely (and it wouldn't be any good!). Your recipe would be ruined.
While chances are you're not going to ruin a recipe because of homophones, making mistakes with homophones in your writing causes a similar effect.
You intend to write one thing, but you write something else entirely (and it's not that good!). Your message is ruined.
5 Tips for Finding and Correcting Homophones
If you tend to be a writer who confuses homophones, then it's a good idea to start working on ways to remember the differences between words that you commonly mix up. So let's talk about some methods to help you avoid your next homophonic disaster.
Tip 1: Picture the Difference
Visualization is a great technique to help your brain distinguish the difference between homophonic words.
Take two words that confuse you and create two distinct pictures of them in your mind. For example:
Picture the word "heel" in your mind and look at the heel of your shoe, notice the color of the heel, the shape—notice if there are any cracks or whether the material is smooth. Hold this image in your mind for a few seconds and then let it go.
Now picture the word "heal" in your mind, and imagine a doctor performing a lifesaving surgery. Imagine how that doctor feels when she learns that her surgery has successfully healed the patient.
(Public Domain) By allowing your mind to draw imagery in conjunction with the word, you are creating a space for that word in your memory. You can even take this a step further and draw an image on paper and label it with the correct homophone. Post it by your desk as a reminder until you learn the difference.
The more you practice picturing commonly confused homophones, the less likely your brain will mix them up in the future.
Tip 2—Use Mnemonic Devices
Some of the most common homophone mix-ups include confusion between their/they're/there, its/it's, and two/too/to. These are common mistakes because it's harder to picture these abstract words. It's definitely more difficult than, for example, picturing the difference between bored and board.
For these types of homophones, it's easier to user mnemonic devices to help you remember the difference.
Here's an example mnemonic device to learn the difference between "loose" and "lose":
Loose (meaning not securely attached) has two o's. Those o's kind of look like the holes in your belt buckle. If you secure your belt buckle too many holes out, then it will be too loose.
Lose (meaning to fail to win) only has one o. What happened to the extra "o"? Perhaps you lost it gambling in Vegas.
This may be a silly example, but you will probably never mix up the two words "lose" and "loose" again. Try to come up with fun devices like this for any homophones that confuse you.
Tip 3 – Use the Find Function
If you know you are guilty of mixing up certain words over and over again, this tip will work great for you.
For example, if you consistently mistake "to" and "too," use the find function on your word processor.
Before you submit your writing. Do a "find all" to highlight all instances of "too" in your text. Go through each instance and make sure it is used correctly.
Then do the same with "to." When you've highlighted the word in question, you'll find it much easier to evaluate whether it's the correct usage or not.
Tip 4 - Context is Key
Luckily you don't write homophones in a vacuum. It would be infinitely more difficult to tell the difference between "meet" and "meat," for example, without the context of a sentence and paragraph.
So to avoid misusing homophones, it is helpful to learn the context of the words that give you the most trouble. Learning the word's part of speech, definition, and reading it in context will make it next to impossible to misuse it.
If you remember that "meat" is a noun (a thing), it will be much harder to confuse it with "meet" the verb (an action).
If you accidentally write the sentence, "Let's cook meet tonight," it will be easier to recognize the mistake if you understand that "meet" is a verb so it's impossible to cook it.
Tip 5 – Have Someone Edit Your Work
After all is said and done, you might find that despite your best efforts a few homophonic mistakes have slipped into your work. This is when it's incredibly helpful to have someone else review your writing.
A second set of eyes will be more likely to catch any homophone errors that you have made during the course of writing. This other person could be a professional editor or a friend or family member who is willing to read your work for you.
So there you have it, five ways to avoid the embarrassment of using the wrong homophone in your writing. If you need more help, check out this homophone quiz. And leave a comment about what homophones tend to trip you up in your writing.