Homophones: Do You Mean There, Their, or They're?

Our editors explain everything you need to know about homophones

A sign that reads "Business as usual: Please bare with us. We are currently improving our premises. We will carry on providing our services." This shows how punctuation marks and homophones can be used incorrectly in signage.
Punctuation marks and homophones can be
tricky for non-native English speakers.

If you find yourself making common ESL mistakes, it's OK. English is one of the hardest languages to learn. English is a Germanic language, but a large proportion of its vocabulary is derived from French, Greek, and Latin. Having such a blend of original language sources has led to a kaleidoscope of peculiar spellings for English words and to the creation of several hundred homophones.

What is a homophone?

A homophone is a word having the same sound as another word but with a different spelling and meaning. While this is excellent news for those who enjoy puns and wordplays, grappling with the complexities of two/to/too and write/right/rite is not so funny for those who are learning English as a second language or those who are not so confident with spelling. You can also try our homophone worksheet to test your homophone knowledge after you finish reading this article.

A closer look at homophones

Some homophones in everyday usage are far enough apart in spelling and meaning to rarely cause problems in ESL writing—for example, through/threw and freeze/frees. It's the less common words and those that are closer in spelling—e.g., principal/principle, revue/review, and phase/faze—that tend to create confusion for native and non-native speakers alike. These are the sorts of words that often need to be corrected by our ESL editors.

A homophone can also be a homonym

To make things even more confusing, some words can be both homophones and homonyms. A homonym has the same spelling as another word but a different meaning. For example, "might" [meaning power or strength] and "might" [meaning past tense of "may"] are homonyms, as are "mite" [meaning a tiny arachnid] and "mite" [meaning a small coin, as in the widow's mite]. So "might" and "mite" are both homophones and homonyms.

A homophone can also be a homograph as well as a homonym—Holy homophone, Batman!

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, some homophones can also be homographs as well as homonyms. A homograph is a word that has the same spelling as another but has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. For example, "bough" [meaning a branch of a tree] is a homophone of both "bow" [meaning to incline one's head or body] and "bow" [meaning the front end of a ship]. These two spellings of "bow" are pronounced to rhyme with "cow" and are therefore homonyms. However, note that "bow" can also be pronounced to rhyme with "low." When pronounced this way, "bow" can refer to a slip-knot with a double loop, something to play a violin with, or something to shoot an arrow with. Thus, "bow" can be a homophone, a homonym, and a homograph.

One final note

We warn students to be careful about relying on word processor spell-checkers to help find and correct homophonic problem words. Not only does a spell-checker not always catch the problems, but when it does, it sometimes suggests the wrong correction! The best way to catch homophone hardships is to submit your paper to one of our English editors for a professional look.

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