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

30 January, 2014

english-idioms

When you’re learning English, it can sometimes feel that this challenging language is out to get you.

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!

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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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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

Image shows two corgis on a wooden pallet, looking to the right.

There are two dogs here, which is not too many dogs.

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

Image shows a woman cuddling a cat.

If I say “your cat”, it doesn’t mean “you are cat”.

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

Image shows piles of diaries in front of rows of more diaries.

This stationery is very appealing. It probably won’t be stationary for long.

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

Image shows a broken-down, rusty car.

We had to take a break from driving because the brakes broke.

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

Image shows a rough-looking brick wall.

Walls, of course, can be very coarse.

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 him”.

Peace/piece

Image shows a statue of a dove with an olive branch in its beak.

The dove of peace carries a piece of tree.

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

Image shows stone stairs outdoors.

These stairs are beautiful; feel free to stare.

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”

Image shows rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds over the sea.

Rays of sunlight raise the soul and rase unhappiness.

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?






 

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Image credits: banner; dog; cat; notebooks; car; wall; dove; stairs; sunlight

41 Responses to “Homophones: the Most Confusing Words in English (a List with Meanings)”

  1. February 01, 2015 at 7:31 pm, balbina said:

    it wass helpful, thanks a lot.

    Reply

  2. May 21, 2015 at 1:58 pm, Ute Limacher-Riebold said:

    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…

    Reply

  3. May 21, 2015 at 6:29 pm, krishnapriya said:

    they are fun and usefuL. want to learn more

    Reply

  4. June 10, 2015 at 1:42 pm, Ashwini said:

    It’s very helpful.

    Reply

  5. July 05, 2015 at 1:01 pm, Sonal said:

    Thanks, it is useful for my exam.

    Reply

  6. September 01, 2015 at 3:43 pm, Fred Kennedy said:

    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.

    Reply

  7. September 29, 2015 at 6:31 pm, Mahbub said:

    Very Useful, Share More words with Meaning & Example.

    Thanks for sharing

    Reply

  8. October 05, 2015 at 3:52 pm, Pame Hawit said:

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

    Reply

  9. October 11, 2015 at 4:30 am, Sussie said:

    Thank you.

    Reply

  10. October 24, 2015 at 12:46 pm, anotherjohn said:

    > 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.”

    Reply

    • December 28, 2016 at 9:42 am, Dhvani said:

      > Homophone of ‘don’ please?

      Reply

      • January 24, 2017 at 4:14 am, Vik said:

        Dawn>

        Reply

  11. November 02, 2015 at 2:30 pm, Lovepreet said:

    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.

    Reply

    • December 28, 2016 at 9:41 am, Dhvani said:

      > They are called Synonyms

      Reply

  12. December 10, 2015 at 3:59 am, Sha'Tara said:

    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?

    Reply

    • March 22, 2016 at 10:51 pm, Phyllis Ehresman said:

      > 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.

      Reply

  13. December 16, 2015 at 11:35 pm, Patrick Buckley said:

    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.

    Reply

    • April 25, 2017 at 11:43 pm, Mark said:

      > 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.

      Reply

  14. January 13, 2016 at 8:46 am, Cheryl said:

    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”.)

    Reply

  15. January 13, 2016 at 8:03 pm, kingsley miracle said:

    it is so useful iam in love with it

    Reply

  16. January 15, 2016 at 2:07 am, Mac said:

    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.

    Reply

  17. February 22, 2016 at 5:20 pm, Sohan said:

    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!

    Reply

  18. May 19, 2016 at 7:36 am, Alejandro said:

    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?

    Reply

  19. June 01, 2016 at 3:55 pm, domain said:

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

    Reply

  20. June 26, 2016 at 7:04 am, Sachin said:

    Helpful

    Reply

  21. July 04, 2016 at 11:24 pm, Doug E said:

    A lot of fun!
    Thanks.

    Reply

  22. July 21, 2016 at 12:09 pm, abdelilah said:

    Interesting.

    Reply

  23. July 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm, Mehwish Sammer said:

    Interesting and very helpful

    Reply

  24. July 26, 2016 at 1:17 am, Trisha said:

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

    Reply

  25. September 14, 2016 at 3:45 am, megha said:

    It was very useful but l need more words

    Reply

  26. November 09, 2016 at 11:58 am, timothy miti said:

    its nice and helpful….

    Reply

  27. November 26, 2016 at 12:39 am, Shubham said:

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

    Reply

  28. November 26, 2016 at 12:41 am, Shubham said:

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

    Reply

  29. December 13, 2016 at 10:42 pm, Elina said:

    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.

    Reply

  30. December 22, 2016 at 8:34 pm, D.B. Camp said:

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

    Reply

  31. December 24, 2016 at 11:46 pm, dan said:

    what a grate article it maid my day.

    Reply

    • December 28, 2016 at 9:44 am, Dhvani said:

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

      Reply

    • April 05, 2017 at 12:09 am, geology Rocks said:

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

      Reply

  32. January 05, 2017 at 7:27 am, 'Tunde said:

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

    Reply

  33. January 19, 2017 at 7:10 pm, Darrell said:

    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

    Reply

  34. March 29, 2017 at 8:36 am, Lucy said:

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

    Reply

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