Homophone Trouble

Published February 14, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

[EDIT — Due to having seen several “Top Searches” show up in my Dashboard saying “homophone for” and then giving something that has no homophone, I am going to preface this page with an explanation of the term “homophone,” as some people seem to have mistaken it for something else.  “Homophones” are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings.  From the Greek words “homo,” meaning “same,” and…okay, my Greek is too rusty to know the precise original form, but it’s probably “phonos,” and no matter what its form, it means either “voice” or “sound” or  possibly both.  (Hey, I haven’t taken ancient Greek in almost 20 years.  It’s only natural that I’d have forgotten stuff.)  I’m not sure what people have been looking for in those searches, but they weren’t homophones.  Synonyms, perhaps.  I’m spelling this out so people looking for something other than a homophone won’t scroll down and find nothing remotely like what they want.  Also, this is not a comprehensive list, just a handful of examples I’ve encountered in published or student works.]

Okay, so I’ve spent a large chunk of the day reading transcriptions of interviews — just like the interview I had to transcribe last week — which were turned in to this class last year.  Add to that the interviews I had to read a couple of weeks ago, which were conducted and transcribed by students about…uh….I’ve forgotten exactly when.  A few years ago.  In any case, in the last three weeks, I’ve read a lot of text composed by college students.  And I have been appalled at what I have seen.

Yes, I’m a graduate student and those students were undergrads.  Yes, I have a prior degree in English.  And no, that is not an excuse for their appalling lack of mastery of the English language.  If they were students whose first language was something other than English, I would have no problem with it, but it seems to me that these types of mistakes are less likely to be made by people for whom English is a second language, because any formal training in English would have stressed points like these, in order to prevent confusion in the students.

In any case, I have decided to keep track of all the homophone problems I’ve ever come across.  Thus, if I ever end up as a teacher (which is admittedly one of the goals I’m shooting for in my current educational program, albeit not perhaps my preferred goal) I will already have prepared a nice handy list that I can hand out in class and say “these are mistakes I’ve seen other people make, and I’m telling you about them now so that no one can complain if I take points off your papers should you make these mistakes.”

Every one of the following mistakes I have either seen in the reading for this class, or in previous reading of student-written works…and in some cases I’ve seen them in professionally published material.  (Seriously.)


“there” “their” “they’re”
“There” is an indication of place.  As in “Put it over there, please.”
“Their” is a possessive pronoun.  “They put their clothes in the hamper as instructed.”
“They’re” is a contraction of “they are.”  “Norman, they’re opening up the bar!”

“your” “you’re”
“Your” is a possessive pronoun.  “Take your hands off me!”
“You’re” is a contraction of “you are.”  “You’re not good enough for my daughter!”
(Technically, there’s another homophone here, “yore,” as in “days of,” but I can’t recall, off-hand, ever seeing anyone make that mistake.  Probably because “yore” is rather archaic these days, and rarely used in casual writing.  There’s also a further homophone in Yor, Hunter from the Future but…yeah, that doesn’t count in the slightest.)

“its” “it’s”
“Its” is a possessive pronoun.  “The car had a dent on its fender.”
“It’s” is a contraction of “it is.”  “It’s cold out today.”
(This may well be the most commonly made homophone mistake in the English language.  It is virtually omnipresent, which is terrifying, considering how simple it is when you stop to think about it.)
[Also, I would like to point out that there is never a time when you follow up “its” with an apostrophe.  Period.  “Its” is the possessive form already.  There is no reason to put an apostrophe behind it.  And someone hiring himself out as a professional historian to write up major projects for museums ought to freakin’ know that without me having to tell him!!!!!  Not, um, that I have any bitterness issues.  Nope.  Not me.  Just ’cause someone calls himself a professional but fails to grasp the way his own language works, why would that bother me?]

“aloud” “allowed”
“Aloud” means “out loud.”  “I was just thinking aloud.”
“Allowed” is a form of the verb “to allow.”  “We weren’t allowed out after dark.”

“bare” “bear”
“Bare” is an adjective meaning “without” as in “The tree was bare of leaves.”  Or “He was entirely bare.”  In the latter, of course, “of clothes” is implied by context.
“Bear” is either a verb meaning “to carry” or a noun meaning an animal.  “Starting in the Meiji era, it was forbidden for the average Japanese man to bear a sword.”  Or, of course, “I saw a bear in the woods today!”  It is thus this spelling that is used in the phrase “to bear with it,” because it essentially means “to carry on through adversity.”  (Seriously, I’ve seen a published work that said “You’ll just have to bare with me.”  And no, the boy was not asking the girl to get naked with him.)  I have not, so far as I can recall, ever seen “bare” used to refer to the animal, but that doesn’t mean it’s never been done…

“do” “due”
“Do” is a verb so basic to the English language that trying to define it without using it is beyond my skills.  If you don’t know that word, you don’t know enough English to have read this far.  “Do as you will.”
“Due” is an adjective, meaning that something is expected or required to happen.  Usually used about either money or the arrival of a baby.  “The rent comes due every month on the 22nd.”  “She’s due to give birth any day now.”  But it can also be used about things like planes, boats, whatever might be arriving, or preparing to depart, or whatever.
So it is the former spelling that is used in the phrase “to make do.”  (Seriously, I’ve seen (the same) published work that said “you’ll just have to make due.”  And not talking about rent or anything.)

“principle” “principal”
“Principle” is an adjective referring to something that is of central importance.  “The best actor played the principle role in the play.”
“Principal” is the person in charge of a school.  “Remember, the principal is your pal!”  (That example sentence was the one they used to teach us this back when I was in grade school.  It may be as dippy as it gets, but it gets the job done, considering I’ve never forgotten it in thirty years.  And by “it” I mean the little mnemonic device, btw.)

“pier” “peer”
A “pier” is a place where boats are moored.  “They assembled on the pier to wave goodbye as their friends sailed away.”
A “peer” is someone who is like you in some manner, usually age, social class, ethnic group, et cetera.  “They felt more comfortable around their peers.”  (Yes, I’ve really seen someone write “pier” instead of “peer.”  That was the one that made me want to write this list, in fact…)

“capital” “capitol”
“Capital” has a lot of definitions.  The top of a column, an indication of importance (“a capital crime” or “a capital letter”), money, or the city where government is located.  “I don’t have enough capital to start a business.”  “Paris is the capital of France.”
“Capitol” is used exclusively to describe the building in which laws are made.  “The legislators were called back to the capitol to vote.”  When capitalized, it means the specific building in Washington D.C. in which Congress meets.

“peak” “peek” “pique”
“Peak” is a noun meaning the top of something, frequently of a mountain.  “We crested the peak of the mountain early this morning.”  It can also be a verb meaning to reach a high point. “The value of our stocks peaked last year, and has sadly fallen ever since.”
“Peek” is a verb meaning “to look at” usually quickly, with implications of secretive behavior.  “Come on, just give us one little peek at the presents!”
“Pique” is a verb meaning to engage something.  “Her curious apparel piqued his interest.”
[These are also pretty common.  Especially using one of the former two in place of the last one.  No one seems to remember how that’s spelled, even though they remember the sound and the meaning.  I’m always fighting not to reply to things on the Internet saying “You meant ‘piqued,’ not ‘peaked’ back there.”  I know it’s rude to correct people like that on the ‘net, so I don’t do it, but the former English major in me is writhing in agony every time.]

“boarder” “border”
A “boarder” is someone who has taken up lodging in another person’s home.  “They were short on funds, so they had to take in a boarder.”
A “border” is the line — whether tangible or intangible — between two places or concepts.  “That creek is the border between Squire Allworthy’s estate and that of Squire Western.”  “He’s right on the border between being a madman and being a genius.”  (Seriously, someone wrote that something was “on the boarder line”…)

“greater” “grater”
“Greater” is a comparative expressing magnitude.  “Four is greater than two.”
“Grater” is a metal thing with holes in.  Usually.  “Hand me that cheese grater, will ya?”  (Admittedly, the one time I’ve seen this mistake made, it was probably just a typo.)

“of” “‘ve”
A very common mistake, though perhaps not specifically a homophone issue.  Many people conversationally elide the “have” of certain phrases into the word before it:  “could have” becomes “could’ve” or “coulda” and so on.  Most have no trouble writing it out when the final consonant is lost (“He shoulda been killed!”) but when the consonant is retained, some people write “could of” instead of “could’ve.”  However, “could of” is always wrong.  Technically speaking, “could’ve” is also wrong, but at least it reflects the reality of what’s being said, and people do use it all the time in speech, after all.

“verses” “versus”
“Verses” are lines of poetry, or sections of a song.  “How many verses is this little ditty of yours?”
“Versus” means “against” and is usually used to describe court cases or sporting contests.  “The court will now hear the case of the State of New York versus King Kong!”  (Until today, I would never have thought anyone would make this mistake…)

“except” “accept”
“Except”…uh…is really hard to define.  (I oughta consult a dictionary and get a prim and proper definition…)  I doubt anyone actually doesn’t know what it means, so I’m gonna skip to the example.  “I’m all in favor of hard work, except when it means I have to do something.”
“Accept” is a verb.  “Sophia insisted that she would never accept Lord Feldemar’s proposal of marriage.”
(Again, not a mistake I expected to see.)

“here” “hear”
“Here” is an indicator of place.  “My home used to stand here, where there is now nothing but ocean.”
“Hear” is a verb.  (Yes, I’m starting to get lazy with the definitions.  So what?  Maybe I’ll fill them in some other time, when I’m less bored by them.)  “Didn’t you hear what I said, boy?!”

“passed” “past”
“Passed” is a form of the verb “to pass.”  “Well, they passed us like we were standing still, so I thought I’d get out and see why the car had stopped!”
“Past” is a noun, meaning that which is no longer.  Um, sort of.  It’s one of those words that’s hard to define without using it, y’know?  “We used to have something, but it’s all in the past.”
I will admit that sometimes it feels a little fuzzy as to when to use “passed” or “past”, particularly if you’re talking about a place:  is it “you went past where you wanted to go” is correct, but so is “you passed right by your destination”.

“week” “weak”
“Week” is an expression of time.  “It’s been two weeks since we arrived on the island.”
“Weak” is an adjective describing lack of strength.  “He felt weak when he awoke that morning.”
(Honestly, this one is probably more often a typo than a mistake in understanding the difference.)

“new” “knew”
“New” means something that is not old.  “Is that a new car?”
“Knew” is the past tense of “to know.”  “I always knew you were the killer!”
(This one, too, is probably most often a typo…and yet with some people online, it happens so regularly that I fear they actually don’t know the difference.)

“then” “than”
“Then” indicates that something happens after something else.  “You took the money, then what happened next?”  But it can also indicate…uh…how to put it?  The presence of an alternative?  “If you didn’t take the money, then who did?”
“Than” accompanies comparative statements.  “Two is less than four.”
(Another all too common mistake.)

“to” “too” “two”
“To” accompanies locative statements, and is half of the infinitive case.  “We’re going to the ball, whether that wench’s fairy godmother wants us there or not!”  “To go, or to stay…either way, we’re screwed.”
“Too” is a synonym for “also.”  “Let us come with you, too!”  Or it can also be…uh…a sign of…um…excess?  I have no idea how to define this part… “It’s too much for me to bear!  It’s too soon for you to die!”
“Two” is a number.  “Two comes after one, and before three.”
(Using “to” instead of “too” is almost as ubiquitous as using “it’s” in place of “its” or vice versa.)

“rights” “rites”
“Rights” is usually used to refer to things like a person’s entitlement to legal counsel, et cetera, though it could also be a directional thing.  “Back in those days, women didn’t have all the same rights as men.”  “You can get through a labyrinth, allegedly, by always taking rights.  Or, alternatively, by always taking lefts.”
“Rites” are rituals, usually with a religious or other extremely serious significance.  “The rites of passage in that tribe consisted largely of making sacrifices to their divine guardians.”

“see” “sea”
“See” is a verb.  “Of course I can see that monstrous thing!  I just don’t know what it is!”
“Sea” is a noun, similar to but not quite synonymous with “ocean”.  “The stupidest Dalek in the universe actually followed the crew of the Marie Celeste off the deck and rolled right into the sea!”
(This one is most likely usually a typo.  It’s also one of the ones more likely to be made by non-English speakers, as the German word “See” means…uh…either a sea or a lake.  I am ashamed to admit that I’ve forgotten which.  (And I’m too lazy to go look it up.  Or to look up its gender…though I think it’s masculine.  Or neuter.  Or feminine.  And now that I’ve exhausted all three possibilities, I’ll just move on.))

“nit” “knit”
“Nit” means either the egg of a louse or a minor error.  Usually the latter.  Almost always, in fact.  Normally, in modern conversational English, “nit” is not used by itself, but in combination with “picking”:  “Pointing out that we have no weapons with which to fight the undead werewolves is hardly mere nit-picking!”
“Knit” can be either a verb or a noun.  “Apparently, Tale of Two Cities has a crazy old lady who liked to knit while watching people be guillotined.”  “The wet T-shirt was clinging to his torso because that’s what a knit fabric does when it’s wet.  His sexy abs did not seem to make the undead werewolves less interested in eating him, though.”
(This one was also probably a typo.)

“no” “know”
“No” is a negative…um, I want to call it a particle, but I don’t think that’s the right term.  (Sadly, while I consider myself pretty good at using the English language, my knowledge of the terminology of grammar has mostly gone bye-bye, as Animal might put it.)  “No, I won’t let you go!” or “There was no way we could fight off so many undead werewolves unaided.”
“Know” is a verb meaning to possess information.  “I realize some of my words make it seem like I know nothing, but I really do know what I’m talking about!”
(I don’t think I, personally, have ever encountered this one.  But I saw this post, and decided that was close enough to add it to the list.)

“hoard” “horde”
“Hoard” can be either a verb or a noun, indicating possessing large quantities of something:  “The dragon’s hoard was quite impressive!” or “Though miserly, he tended to hoard rolled-up paper napkins rather than money.”
“Horde” is noun indicating a large group of something, usually of people.  “The Visigoth hordes swept into the village and forced the inhabitants to pick up the mess they had left in the forest.”  (Apparently, World of Warcraft has also introduced a verb form of “horde” due to one of the in-game alignments being called “the horde”…?  Sorry, I don’t do MMOs, so I don’t really know for sure…but so long as it’s not spelled “hoard” it should probably be right, if slang?)
[This may well be one of those mistakes where one’s fingers are more used to typing one version, and automatically use it even when the brain knows it’s incorrect.  That may sound nuts to people who don’t do as much typing as I do, but believe me, it happens.  The fingers can only go that fast by acting on, essentially, a kind of auto-pilot, where your mind is not consciously telling them which buttons to press, but which word to create on screen, depending on muscle memory to get it done correctly.  (That’s why you get a lot of typos when you switch to a new computer.)]

And now for something slightly different.  A selection of mistakes that aren’t quite homophones (in that they don’t actually sound the same), but are close enough that I don’t know what else to call them.  Simply words that are sometimes mistaken for each other?  The first one is common.  The last few…hopefully those were unique…

“were” “we’re” “where” “wear”
“Were” is the past tense of “are.”  “We were all alone, on a romantic cruise liner…filled with undead werewolves!”
“We’re” is a contraction of “we are.”  “We’re going to die if those werewolves get us!”
“Where” is an interrogative, requesting place.  “Where can we go to hide from the werewolves?”  Though it can be used in a non-interrogative manner.  “They eventually found a place where they could hide from the undead werewolves.”
“Wear” is a transitive verb, generally used about clothing.  “They don’t need to wear clothes; they’re werewolves!”

“tenet” “tenant” “Tennant”
A “tenet” is a belief, usually a core belief in a religion.  “The tenets of my religion forbid me from killing the undead werewolves.”
A “tenant” is a person who lives on another’s property; this can be anything from the inhabitants of an apartment building to peasant farmers paying a landowner so they can live and work on his property.  “The tenants of the apartment building had no idea that centuries earlier, that same land had been worked by poor tenant farmers who were being bled dry by crippling fees from the same wealthy landlord who schemed to turn them into undead werewolves.”
“Tennant” is a name.  “David Tennant is sexiest when using his native Scottish accent.”  (Okay, I don’t think anyone’s ever used that last one by mistake.  I just like talking about sexy accents, because that’s the way I roll.)

“um” “’em”
“Um” is a noise made when the speaker is struggling to find the next word.  “So then we were going to, um, that place…what was that place called?”  (It is officially called “a crutch word” by the Oral History Association, btw.)
“‘Em” is a shortened form of “them.”  “My pretty trained attack werewolves!  I have just one command for you:  go get ’em!”
(Outside of student attempts at transcription, like what I’ve been reading, this mistake seems unlikely to be made.  Though some people forget the ‘ in front of “’em,” which drives me buggy…)

“encase” “in case”
“Encase” is a verb, meaning to completely cover something in another material.  “The werewolf that fell off the boat was soon encased in ice.”  (Sorry, I seem to be stuck on that one.  Maybe I need to write a short story about undead werewolves on a cruise liner?)
“In case” is two words, and I really doubt I need to define them.  “Maybe I should, just in case?”
(Like with the previous one, this is a very weird example, unlikely to occur again.  I hope.)

“jest” “gist”
A “jest” is a joke; the word can be either a noun or a verb.  “I do not jest when I tell you that I personally bred these werewolves to take great pleasure in the taste of living human flesh!”
The “gist” is the basic essence of something.  “The gist of his monologue was that he was really happy we were about to be torn apart by his undead werewolves.”

I’m positive there are more.  Or rather, more I’ve seen just in the last couple of weeks.  There are tons of other homophones in the English language.  (But some are rarely, if ever, used in mistake for one another.  “You,” “ewe” and “yew” are unlikely to be used in place of each other, for example.  In part because “you” is the only one of those three commonly used.)  Darn, I should have been jotting these down as I was reading today.  Well, I’ll do that tomorrow if I get any more eye-openers like “with their piers.”

This post will, of course, be constantly updated whenever I come across more examples of homophone trouble.  Because, as I said at the beginning, this is as much for my own personal use in the future as anything else.  (Ooh!  What about “personal” and “personnel”?  Have I seen those used for each other?  Hmm…not sure, actually…so I probably shouldn’t put them on the list.  They’re not really homophones, anyway, since they don’t actually sound the same.)

[ Edited, Feb 15, 2015.  The one I forgot yesterday that was really bugging me was “peek” and “peak.”  I’ve gone ahead and added in the ones I saw in the rest of the interviews I read today.  Further updates will be more sporadic; so far as I know, we’re not going to be required to read any more student works in this class.  So far as I know.  Keep in mind, every single one of the ones below peek/peak/pique, I saw today.  With the possible exception of “here” and “hear.”  I know I’ve seen that (this story a guy turned in during my undergraduate years made that mistake every single time, and it practically gives me nightmares even now) but I can’t recall if I actually saw it in the last two days, or just was reminded of it.  I didn’t add it, because it’s not in the least bit a homophone in any sense of the word, but one student wrote “uh head” instead of “ahead.”  I have no idea what was going on in that person’s mind.  Even if it sounded from the first syllable like the man was simply saying “uh” (which you’re not really supposed to transcribe anyway) the sentence made no sense if you assumed he had said “head” instead of “ahead”!]

[Edited Feb. 22, 2015.  In researching for a paper, I had to read some additional oral interviews, this time ones published on the Internet by a major university on the East Coast.  (For the sake of politeness, I won’t say which one.  It’s not an Ivy League school, though.)  Only a couple of the mistakes I encountered felt like ones I could add in above, because the others…one involved turning a word into a not-word, and the other…I have never seen anywhere before, and I hope never to see it anywhere again.  The former was writing “eeked” instead of “eked.”  I mean, I know “eek” is a more common word than “eke” in casual speech, but in what way could “eek” ever be interpreted as a verb?  The other one was writing “kind’ve” instead of “kind of.”  I have to assume that in that case a student’s attempt to get things right backfired:  presumably, the transcriber used to write “could of” instead of “could’ve” and after having the correct version pounded into their head, they reflexively changed the “of” to a “‘ve” even though in that case it made no sense. ]

[Newly edited on Nov. 23, 2015, when I should be reading Dio’s Roman History and/or compiling my notes for my research papers.  Because I’m procrastinating.  (Someone take the Internet away from me, please!)  I only added the introductory definition, and “no”/”know” which was kind of a cheat, since I didn’t encounter it personally.]

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