It’s the spelling bee and the judge asks you to spell whether. Images of thunderstorms and blizzards flood your mind.
You’re ready to spell it, but just to make sure, you ask the judge if they could use it in a sentence. They oblige with, “We’re leaving whether or not you come with us.”
Whew! That was close! You wouldn’t have known how to spell that word without the context.
Words like these are called homophones. Writers and poets use these literary devices to create compelling works of art, but you can also use them to sharpen your writing skills and edit your work more effectively.
What Is a Homophone?
A word that’s pronounced the same as another word, but doesn’t mean the same thing and is sometimes spelled differently—that’s a homophone. You hear them every day, but homophonic words are easier to understand if you can actually see them:
Red and Read
One is a color and the other is the past tense of to read. Example: “I read Clifford the Big Red Dog to my three-year-old nephew last summer, and he loved it.”
Knight and Night
Think of Batman. “The Dark Knight fights bad guys in the middle of the night.” One describes a warrior, and the other is the time of day.
Weigh and Way
“There’s no way I only weigh 165 pounds! I’ve been lifting weights since January.” In this example “way” describes an outcome, and “weigh” refers to how heavy something is.
No and Know
Imagine being faulted for something someone forgot to tell you. “No, that’s not my fault. I didn’t know about it.”
Moor More Examples
You could spend all day flipping through the dictionary finding other common homophones, or you can check out this list we created for you:
- our and are
- there, their, and they’re
- to, too, and two
- than and then
- your and you’re
- right and write
- see and sea
- son and sun
- here and hear
- through and threw
- hair and hare
- bare and bear
- deer and dear
Now, what about bear, the animal that lives in the woods, and bear, meaning endure? Or right, a direction you can turn in, or right, a privilege to which you’re entitled? Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Homophone vs. Homograph
A word that’s spelled the same as another word but has a different meaning, and may or may not sound the same is a homograph.
Think of “tear” (sounds like air) and “tear” (sounds like ear): These words look identical on paper but are used in different ways:
- There’s a tear in your jeans.
- Waxing my eyebrows makes me tear up.
- Our dog would bark at the mail carrier.
- The tree bark is peeling.
- The next batter on the team struck out.
- The cake batter tastes like vanilla.
- We went bass fishing last Saturday morning.
- I play bass guitar in a band.
You can remember the difference between a homophone and a homograph if you consider their Latin and Greek origins.
“Homo” means same, “phone” means sound, and “graph” means written. So “homophone” means sounds the same, and “homograph” means written the same way.
Homophone vs. Homonym
There’s a third term you need to know: homonym. This is a word with identical spelling and pronunciation, but unrelated definitions.
For example, express can mean fast food service or a quick line at Disneyland, but it can also be a form of sharing your thoughts and emotions, such as expressing disappointment.
Fall is the season when leaves change color, but it can also mean a loss of balance. “Don’t pull the Jenga block too fast or the tower will fall!”
Now We’re Speaking The Same Language
Understanding homophones and how they’re used can help you expand your vocabulary, and brushing up on writing mechanics will help you be a more effective and professional communicator.
Best of all, master homophones, homographs and homonyms, and a Scrabble championship can’t be too far behind.
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