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Homophones: the Most Confusing Words in English (a List with Meanings)

When you look at the number of homophones, it’s not difficult to see why so many students get caught out. But what is a homophone, I hear you ask? You’re about to find out as we take you through some word-based conundrums.

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49 comments


When you look at the number of homophones, it’s not difficult to see why so many students get caught out.

But what exactly is a homophone, I hear you ask? You’re about to find out as we take you through the meaning of homophony and the word-based conundrums they cause. Don’t worry though; we’ll introduce you to some of the most common ones so that you know to watch out for them!

 

What is a homophone?

The word “homophone” is used to describe a word that sounds the same as another word, but that has a different meaning. It comes from the Greek words “homo”, meaning “same”, and “phone”, meaning “voice”. The two (or more) words may be spelled differently, but just to make life difficult, they can also be spelled the same. The potential for confusion for native and non-native speakers alike is, unfortunately, great.

Just to confuse you a little more (last time, promise), there are several words that we use to refer to different types of homophone.

Homophone – all words and phrases that sound the same but have different meanings

Homograph – words that sound and are spelled the same but have different meanings

Homonym – words that have the same spelling but a different meaning

Heterograph – words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings

Multinym – words that sound the same but have more than two different meanings and spellings

 

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Placeholder caption.

 

On the subject of multinyms, it may surprise you to learn that in English, there is one instance of a multinym with no fewer than seven variations, all sounding the same but meaning different things. There’s also one instance of six variants, two of five, 24 of four and 88 of three. Some of the variants are archaic words that aren’t used anymore, so you needn’t concern yourself with them.

 

Common examples of homophones

Below, we introduce you to some of the most common homophones – those that you’re likely to meet with in either day-to-day conversation or in your academic work. There are too many to include all of them, but these examples should at least help you with some of them and stand as a warning that the English language has plenty of pitfalls for you to be aware of!

 

To, two, too

Lots of native English-speakers get confused about this one. Luckily, though, these three words have very different uses, and the examples below should help you remember them.

To – used in the infinitive form of a verb, such as “to walk”, and also to mean “towards”.

Too – this means “as well” or “also”; for example, “me too”.

Two – this is the number; for example, “two days ago”.

 

There, their, they’re

Again, even native English-speakers get this one wrong, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with it!

There – this refers to a place that is not here; for instance, “over there”. It can also be used to state something, such as “There is an argument to suggest…”, or (in a slightly old-fashioned way) to comfort someone: “There there, it will be alright.”

Their – this indicates possession: something belonging to them. For example, “we could use their boat”.

They’re – this is a shortening of “they are”. For example, “They’re going to be here at 12pm”.

 

Your/you’re

This has to be one of the most commonly confused aspects of the English language, and the fact that so many people get it wrong is a pet hate of every grammar purist in the UK. If you can master the difference, you’ll be doing better than a lot of Brits!

Your – this is the second person possessive form, indicating something belonging to you. For example, “This is your decision.”

You’re – short for “you are”, as in “You’re amazing.”

Bonus: Yore – you’re not very likely to come across this one, but it’s an old-fashioned way of referring to a time long ago. For example, “In the days of yore” means a similar thing to “In olden times”.

 

By/buy/bye

Another one on the long list of commonly confused words, these three are easily differentiated with some examples.

By – this preposition refers to something beside, near or through. For example, “There’s an ice cream van over there by that tree.”

Buy – this is a verb meaning to purchase something. For instance, “let’s go and buy a car.”

Bye – short for “goodbye”, this is an expression used to bid someone farewell. Real grammar sticklers would probably insist on using an apostrophe at the beginning to indicate the absence of the word “good” – that is, “’bye” – but this is old-fashioned, so you don’t need to include one.

 

Stationary/stationery

One letter makes a big difference with these two, completely altering the meaning.

Stationary – this word is used to describe something that is motionless (not moving). For example, “the cars were stationary in the traffic jam.”

Stationery – pens, pencils and other things you write with or on, for use in the office or when studying.

 

Compliment/complement

The adjective forms of these two words add an extra layer of complexity for you to contend with.

Compliment – this is a nice thing you say to someone to flatter them, for example, “You look nice today.” The adjective of this is “complimentary”, which has two meanings. It can refer to something expressing praise – such as “He was most complimentary, saying how pretty I looked.” But just to add to the confusion, “complimentary” can also mean “free of charge”. For example, “the airline provided complimentary drinks for those delayed”.

Complement – this is something that goes well with something else. For example, “the dress complemented the colour of her hair.” The adjective form is “complementary”, meaning things that go together, used as follows: “The two of them provided complementary skills; he was good at writing, while she was good at sales.”

 

Brake/break

Same letters, different order – and that makes all the difference!

Brake – this spelling refers to the brakes on a car or other vehicle, and in a wider sense to slowing down. For example, “He applied the brakes to slow the car down.”

Break – confusingly, this spelling this has several meanings.

As a verb, “to break” means to separate something into parts. For example, “I’m going to break this chocolate bar into three so we can share.”

○ As a noun, it can be used to signify a pause or stop, such as “a break in the schedule”, or you can “take a break”, meaning have some time off.

○ You can also use the word to describe the consequences of the verb – when you “break” something, it is “broken” and the site of the separation can be referred to as “the break”. For instance, “He broke his leg, but the break is mending.”

 

Coarse/course

If you’ve been browsing our website, you’ll probably know at least one of these meanings! Here are all the possible definitions.

Course – this has many meanings.

○ A course is what we offer here at Oxford Royale Academy – a programme of educational study.

○ “Of course” means “naturally”. For example, “Would you like a chocolate?” – “Of course!”

○ It can also mean “direction”; for instance, an “unexpected course of events” describes events unfolding in an unanticipated direction. You could also say, “I don’t know what course of action to take”, or “The plane took a northerly course.”

○ In sport, it describes an area of land or water set aside for the purpose of a particular activity, such as a “golf course”, “water skiing course” or “cross country course”.

○ Another context in which you might hear this word is to describe parts of a meal. For instance, the “main course” is the most substantial part of the meal.

○ Less often heard is the use of this word to describe hunting with dogs, such as “hare coursing”.

○ As a verb, “to course” refers to the movement of liquid, such as “water coursing through a channel”.

Coarse – this word is used to describe things that are rough or crude. This could be rough in texture – as in “sandpaper is very coarse” – or to describe language, such as “His humour was very coarse.”

 

Here/hear

You’ll find a cunning way to remember the difference between these two under the definition for “hear” below.

Here – this refers to something being in one’s current location – for example, “There is a strange smell here”. You can also use it when introducing something, such as “Here is something I know you’ll like.”

Hear – this means to detect a sound. If it helps you remember it, consider the fact that the word “hear” contains the word “ear”! You can also say “Hear, hear” to indicate that you agree with someone. This bizarre phrase is a shortened form of a 17th century phrase used in Parliament, “Hear him, hear

 

Peace/piece

John Lennon famously sang “Give peace a chance”. Make sure you don’t upset Beatles fans by getting the spelling right!

Peace – this is the absence of war, as referred to by Lennon in 1969. The word also refers more generally to a feeling of contentment, for example “The woods were very peaceful.”

Piece – spelled this way, the word means a unit or portion of something, such as “a piece of cake”. To “say your piece” means to state your opinion about something, while “giving someone a piece of your mind” means to tell them – usually in anger – exactly what you think of a situation.

 

Whole/hole

Two words with almost entirely opposite meanings. The W is silent, because the English language likes to confuse us with apparently unnecessary silent letters.

Whole – this means “complete” or “entire” – used as in “the whole story”.

Hole – a “hole” indicates a lack of something, as in an opening. For example, the hole in a ring doughnut is the missing bit in the middle, while a “Black Hole” is an invisible area of space that appears to have nothing in it, because its gravity prevents even light from escaping.

 

Stare/stair

These identical-sounding words both derive from Old English words with Germanic origins.

Stare – the verb “to stare” refers to the act of gazing intently at something. As a noun, it refers to the look itself – for example “a long, cold stare”.

Stair – this refers to a single step, or one of a number of steps, used to connect two different levels, with variants including “staircase” (the complete set of steps), “stairway” (the steps and their surrounding walls), “stairwell” (the shaft occupied by the staircase), “downstairs” (the bottom level) and “upstairs” (the upper level).

 

Know/no

As this example illustrates, it’s amazing how much difference it makes to put unlikely letters at the beginning and end of a word.

Know – “to know” means “to be aware of something”; for example, “I know he is afraid.” The K at the beginning is one of a number of instances in the English language of a silent K, so it’s pronounced in exactly the same way as “no” – even though if you take the K off, you have the word “now”, which is pronounced in a way that rhymes it with “how”. Just another example of unexpected exceptions to English language rules!

No – the opposite of “yes”, used to indicate the negative. Bizarrely, “no.” – with a full stop after it – is also used to abbreviate the word “number”. For example, “No. of pages: 150.”

 

Seven meanings sounding like “raise”

To finish, this is the seven-variant multinym we mentioned earlier. Don’t worry – you’re not likely to come across many of these, but we thought you might like to see it to give you an idea of just how complex the English language can be!

Raise – to lift something up

Rays – sunbeams

Rase – to erase something

Raze – to knock something down

Rehs – sodium salt mixtures

Réis – plural of real (the currency of Portugal and Brazil)

Res – plural of re, as in the musical scale (doh re mi, for fans of The Sound of Music)

 

If you’ve enjoyed this introduction to some of the quirks of the English language and you’d like to advance your English skills further by learning some more, why not apply to study on one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses?

 

Image credits: big ben;

Comments (49)

  1. balbina


    it wass helpful, thanks a lot.

  2. Ute Limacher-Riebold


    Thank you, that was very helpful. May I add “knight” and “night”, “flew” and “flue”, “wright”-“write”-“right”… and many more. I’d love to have a long list of them…

    • joe ngegba


      very nice

  3. krishnapriya


    they are fun and usefuL. want to learn more

  4. Ashwini


    It’s very helpful.

  5. Sonal


    Thanks, it is useful for my exam.

  6. Fred Kennedy


    I work as a voluntary teaching assistant. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to think that “there” ” their” and “they’re” are homophones, they are not. My explanation is if you spell there and their as they sound they would be spelled thair, but they would be spelled thay, so changing it to they’re does not change its pronunciation.

    • Ms. K.


      > Their, they’re, and there are homophones. They are pronounced in the same way.

  7. Mahbub


    Very Useful, Share More words with Meaning & Example.

    Thanks for sharing

  8. Pame Hawit


    Would you please give me a homophone of “aside” ?

  9. Sussie


    Thank you.

  10. anotherjohn


    > I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to think that “there” ”their” and “they’re” are homophones
    The pronunciation of “there”, “their” and “they’re” is identical for me (British English).

    > Would you please give me a homophone of “aside”?
    “Aside” = “a side” :)

    “I am setting aside money for a rainy day.”
    “Joking aside, that was terribly bad luck.”

    “A side” generally occurs as part of a phrase (“side order”, “side dish”, “side effect”, “side issue”, “side entrance”, etc):
    “I’m having the steak with a side order of potato salad.”
    “This medicine causes sneezing as a side effect.”
    “Use of the restroom was a side issue in the negotiations.”

    Also:
    “We are playing 5-a-side football at the weekend.”
    “The square is 5cm on a side.”
    “I bought a side of beef.”

    • Dhvani


      > Homophone of ‘don’ please?

      • Vik


        Dawn>

  11. Lovepreet


    I want to know that there are many words which are spelled different and pronounced different but are same meaning, for example, Fear,afraid,frighten,terror,horror…please make it out to me.

    • Dhvani


      > They are called Synonyms

  12. Sha’Tara


    Although English is my second language, and I have most or the examples you put down quite pat, this is what eludes me the most: its and it’s. Is there a “trick” to remember which is which?

    • Phyllis Ehresman


      > Every time you read or use it’s, call it it is. If the meaning is correct, then use it’s; if it is incorrect, use its.

  13. Patrick Buckley


    The difference between it’s and its is very easy. “It’s is a contraction of two words: a pronoun “it” and a passive verb “is”. It means “it is……. (followed by a noun or adjective).

    On the other hand, “its” is a possessive pronoun, which means “possession” of something. For example: The dog damaged its paw”. The paw belongs to the dog—-so, “its” signifies possession.

    • Mark


      > This has always confused me, mainly because any other time in the English language, you would use an apostrophe s to show possession and no apostrophe to indicate that the word is plural.

      ie. If there is more than one guy named Bill, you have two Bills. If you are referring to the dog that is owned by Bill, you would say Bill’s dog. It is an exception to that rule.

  14. Cheryl


    So, in other words, if it makes sense to say “it is” when you want to say ‘It’s” then you use the apostrophe, e.g. It’s a lovely day today. (It is a lovely day today.)
    But there is no apostrophe if “it is’ doesn’t make sense in your sentence, e.g. The dog hurt its paw. (You wouldn’t want to say: The dog hurt it is paw. So you use “its”.)

  15. kingsley miracle


    it is so useful iam in love with it

  16. Mac


    I completely agree with Fred regarding the words there, their and they’re. Pronounced correctly, there is no problem with they’re. I believe the same thing applies to the words your and you’re. Your sounds like yore and you’re sounds like you + er, a two syllable word in effect.

  17. Sohan


    You don’t have to deal with this kind of nonsense with pure phonetic scripts (e.g. Arabic, Hindi, Tamil). Heck, you won’t have to deal with it even with scripts that have tons of homophones — such as Chinese — because users don’t expect there to be a phonetic correspondence between written and spoken in the first place. It’s only in languages like English, where there is “kinda, sorta, but not really” a phonetic basis for the writing. Aaargh!

  18. Alejandro


    On the last example, I think we could add another word, this word is used to describe a competition where the participants, either run, drive, ride a bicycle, etc against each other, wanting to cross the finish line first.

    I’m also non native to English and my teacher told me about its and it’s: ‘It’s clear its own’ or something like that. Meaning, it’s is a conjunction of a verb, its declares property of something. Hope this helps

    Cool article by the way. Is there a list of these words available?

  19. domain


    It’s an remarkable article designed for all the online viewers; they will
    take advantage from it I am sure.

  20. Sachin


    Helpful

  21. Doug E


    A lot of fun!
    Thanks.

  22. abdelilah


    Interesting.

  23. Mehwish Sammer


    Interesting and very helpful

  24. Trisha


    This was very helpful, short sweet detail & informative, exactly what we were wondering about!!!
    THANX!
    still pretty ignorant,
    TRISH

  25. megha


    It was very useful but l need more words

  26. timothy miti


    its nice and helpful….

  27. Shubham


    Very usefull in accordance with the exam pointer view….want to learn more.

  28. Shubham


    Really very usefull in accordance with exam pointrview….want to learn more

  29. Elina


    Raise has one additional meaning. In this spelling it can be the verb to lift up as mentioned but also it could be a noun meaning a certain amount more. I earned a pay raise of 2% for example.

  30. D.B. Camp


    Complement – the number in an organization e.g. ‘That destroyer has a complement of l8 officers and 198 men.’

  31. dan


    what a grate article it maid my day.

    • Dhvani


      > I sea what you deed there, you maid my day, I love you!

    • geology Rocks


      > Eye also sea what ewe did their. and it also maid my day.

  32. ‘Tunde


    Can “been” and “being” be considered homophones pls?

  33. Darrell


    immanent – existing or operating within; inherent
    imminent – about to happen
    eminent – famous, respected, emphasize a positive quality

    immanent from Latin remain within
    imminent from Latin overhanging, impending
    eminent from Latin jutting, projecting

  34. Lucy


    Can you please bring me example od homonyms which derived from the same origin but spelt differently ?
    Tank you :)

  35. Ram


    It was very useful but l need more words

  36. abraham


    I really like this website… Its really helpful. Thanks a lot.

  37. soil


    І appreciate, rеsult in I discovered just what I ᴡas taking a look for.

    You’ve ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless ʏou man. Have а great day.
    Bye

  38. Heather


    Right am not the most intelligent person so no making fun Lol I need help with homophones. I think am making it more complicated especially with being dyslexic. My daughter is 7, needed help with homework.,Words are needle,poodle,bible,fable,ladle,people,other,about,many,them,then and these. For people a got peepul but stuck with the rest, am at my wits end with it. I may be on wrong site but if you could have anything would be much appreciated . Thanks

  39. Digby Green


    Great list thanks, I’ll have to study your website some more

    As a native English speaker, one of the words hat really annoys me is Red and Read.
    Ok one is a colour the other is to do with reading.
    But when you write the word read, you don’t know the tense, eg do I need to read the book, or have I read it.

    It gets worse when you add the word proof read.
    So do I need to proof read it, or have I proof read it?

    Could I suggest a new spelling of reed (rhymes with need) (for present and future tense)

  40. Eddie Tak


    Medal
    Meddle
    And two more that are close if said quickly:
    Metal
    Mettle


You


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