Is the English language trying to trip people up? Because it sure seems that way. Otherwise, why in the world would someone have created homonyms?
You know homonyms. They’re those pesky words that sound alike, look alike, or (for the particularly cruel ones) do both. In fact, most of the time when people speak about homonyms, they are actually talking about two other distinct groups of words that both fall under the homonym umbrella—homophones and homographs.
Homophones are words that sound the same—hence the use of the suffix “phone,” which might make you think of a telephone. What do you do on a telephone? Talk and listen—things that have to do with sounds.
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, and unfortunately I don’t have anything clever to say about “graph” to make the word clearer. Just remember: same letters, different definition.
Unfortunately for those who are trying to master English, homonyms aren’t going anywhere, so you have to be aware of them to make sure that you’re actually saying—and writing—what you mean. To help you with this, we put together a list of ten words that people often confuse:
The first one is a flattering remark you might give to a student, friend, or loved one. The second refers to the way two things might work together to improve or complete something.
Here’s one that all serious students need to remember. “Sight” is what you see with your eyes, whereas “site” is the physical (or digital, in the case of a website) place you are seeing. And “cite,” of course, is something you had better be doing for all of your sources in your term papers!
These words, pronounced “doo,” can mean “to carry something out” (do) or (as due) can refer to the time when something is scheduled to be completed or when someone is owed something.
These words, pronounced “doh,” have a wide range of meanings. This “do” (completely different than the one above that is spelled the same) is a note you might see on a sheet of music, while “doe” refers to a female deer, “dough” is bread before it’s cooked or a slang term for money, and “d’oh” is what Homer Simpson says when he makes a mistake.
“Do you hear us? We’re over here!” The first word denotes a specific location and means “this place, not that place.” “Hear,” on the other hand, is what you do with your ears and is also used to show strong agreement in the phrase “Hear! Hear!”
For the first one, you are permitted to do something; for the second, I can hear you doing it because it is audible.
Now we’re getting to it. This terrible trifecta is one that even native speakers confuse, but it’s so common that you need to know it. “There” has two uses: the first is as a way to indicate that something exists (e.g., there are bluebirds, or there is only one president); the second is to describe a place that is not “here.” When you want to show that something belongs to others, you say that it is theirs. And if more than one person is going to do something, you would say “they are” or its contraction, “they’re.”
Right up there with, well, “there” are the various “your” words. Mostly, people tend to just confuse the first two, but we added “yore” as a bonus. If something belongs to you, it is yours. However, if you are a bit peeved that someone stole it, you might express that you’re furious—a way to shorten “you” and “are.” And, finally, if all of this happened long, long ago, we could feasibly say that it happened in days of yore.
“To” means “headed towards” or “for” and is used before the infinitive of verbs. Suzy might say, “I’m going to the market.” If, in a total coincidence, Jane was also going to the market, she could reply, “I’m going too!” Or, if she believed Suzy visits the market excessively, she might say, “You go there too much!” And, finally, the pair or the two of them could go to the market together.
It’s always embarrassing when someone confuses these in written form. The first word refers to a direction (the opposite of left), points out that someone is correct, or is a declaration of something to which you are entitled. “Write,” on the other hand, is what I’m doing right now by putting words to paper—even if that “paper” is electronic. The final word refers to a ceremony or ritual—some might even say that learning and discerning homonyms is a rite of passage to becoming proficient in English.