What is a Homophone?

what is a homophone

What is a homophone?

Homophones are those annoying words that sound exactly alike but have different meanings and are often spelled differently.

They give English teachers nightmares, cause headaches for students, and drive editors crazy.

We writers need to be diligent about homophones because spell-check won’t catch them, and many readers cite misspelled homophones as pet peeves.

And we never want to annoy our readers! That’s a cardinal sin.

Examples of Homophones

Here are some examples of homophones:

  • Their and there
  • Accept vs. except
  • Compliment vs complement
  • Its and It’s
  • Weather and whether
  • Bass or base

Homophones must sound the same but differ in meaning. They’re not always spelled the same, but they can share spelling. For example tie (tie a knot) and tie (fashion accessory worn around the neck).

These words can frustrate people who struggle to memorize variant spellings and meanings for words that sound alike, and spell check won’t catch the mistake when incorrect homophones are used, because variant spellings are legitimate.


Homophones and Spell Check

The problem with most homophones is that if we’re typing too quickly or not paying close attention to what we’re writing, we could accidentally end up with a properly spelled word, except it’s the wrong word. It doesn’t work in the context of the sentence.

As an example, let’s look at the homophones affect vs. effect. If you’re in a hurry or if you’re not fully concentrating on the task at hand, you could easily mistype the first letter of either of those words and end up with something like the following:

  • That movie had great special affects. (wrong: it should be special effects)
  • That movie effected me deeply. (wrong: it should be affected)

In the examples above, just one little letter was mistyped in each sentence. Typos like these happen all the time. That’s why we run spell-check and proofread our work. But since both affects and effected in the examples above are correct spellings, a program like Microsoft Word won’t catch them. In other words, spell-check cannot check to see if you are using words correctly.

Remembering Spellings

Wouldn’t it be cool if the built-in spell-check on the world’s most popular word-processing software had a homophone filter? It would work like the find feature, except it would point out all the words in your document that can be classified as homophones.

As far as I know, no such filter exists (at least not in the software I use. So writers and editors have to look for these nagging little typos manually — which is to say we have to proofread our texts carefully.

The funny thing about homophones is that they are rarely misspelled because the writer doesn’t know the correct usage. Usually, the misspelling occurs because the writer made a typo and then missed that typo during proofreading and editing (or failed to proofread and edit altogether).

Personally, I find that if a typo slips past my editing eyes, it’s almost always a homophone. And it drives me crazy.

What is a Homophone?

Do you have a good grasp on homophones? How do you feel when you find that you’ve misspelled a homophone in a piece of writing or a published blog post? Do these words give you more trouble in editing than other words? Got any tips for catching misspelled homophones or remembering the correct spellings and definitions? Please share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment. And keep writing!

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


16 Responses to “What is a Homophone?”

  1. Robin Hawke says:

    Every six months I search for a homonym finder: it seems like such a simple app.

    A cliche finder would be useful, too–for the hardest of days. Squiggly underlines might push me to dig deeper when my normal writing process is misbehaving.

  2. Shane Arthur says:

    I have a macro that highlights problem words and flab words. All I do is click a button to execute my macro. If it finds any suspect words, the macro highlights the words for me. I can view each highlight and decide if the word in question is correct. Simply plug in all homophones and watch the macro do its thing. But memorizing all homophones and looking for them manually is smart too.

    • It sounds like you have to program in all the problem words. That could take a while! Still, it’s something!

      • Shane Arthur says:

        My macro currently has over 400 words/phrases that it searches. Takes time upfront, but the payoff is huge. I’d edit a job, read it a final time before sending, and I’d notice a few words/phrases slipped through. So I’d make a change and read the piece again wondering if anything else slipped through. After creating the macro, I don’t forget anything. My macro remembers what I might forget.

        • Wow, that’s awesome, Shane. I can see where it’s one of those things that you invest some time in, and then reap benefits for a long time afterward. I bet you could market that macro or develop it into an app of some kind.

  3. Yvonne Root says:

    I do have trouble with homophones. As for how I solve the problem (at least most of the time) my beautiful home schooled daughter seems to have a knack for finding them in my writing. Do you think she is getting even with me? You did notice I said she was home schooled; right? 😉

    • I think it’s wonderful when kids can help their parents, and only more wonderful when they’re helping with things they learned from their parents. Full circle!

  4. Bruce H. Johnson says:

    Homophoneaphobia is probably in the mental disease of the year list the phychiatrists make up. Nevertheless, we should cutlivate it at least to some extent. Shane’s macro might help.

    On the other hand, these and other “mal” words have great potential for puns — if your character can say them with a straight face.

  5. I wonder lately whether people just don’t understand the difference between “there, their, and they’re” or “your and you’re” … Perhaps I’m being too harsh and in fact, they’re in need of a homophone checker. I do like the idea of Shane’s macro. I never thought of using the macro function that way and I’m in debt to him. Now, to find an extra few hours this week to start making the list to put in.

    Will these children never go back to school? I need to write!

    • I hate to say it, but I think most people do know the difference but can’t be bothered to pause for a few seconds to either think about the difference (between they’re, their, and there, for example) or to proofread what they’ve written. In my editing and coaching work, I find that most grammar problems arise from failure to proofread rather than lack of knowledge. That’s good, in a way, because it means most people do know the difference. But it’s a bit disappointing that they don’t care enough to clean up their work.

      Then again, I get the feeling a fair number actually don’t know the correct spelling or usage. I guess it’s a mix.


  6. Aften Brook Szymanski says:

    Autocorrect needs this too. I don’t know how many people have appeared less intelligent thanks to improper use of to, too, its, it’s, they’re, there, your, you’re… I could go on. Fast typing makes us look like idiots, which all Racko players know is someone with an IQ of 19 or less (the new version has number facts for every card- awesome huh).

    • Fast typing is great for drafting, but it’s a good idea to slow down and pay close attention when editing. I’m not a fan of autocorrect. I prefer to set the software up to highlight any mistakes it detects, so I can determine whether they are, in fact, mistakes. But I do think it would be immensely helpful if spelling and grammar checkers included some kind of homophone detection tool.

  7. Em Fairley says:

    Most often it’s not homophones I slip up on, but general typos that create valid words. One recent example that slipped through when I proofread and wasn’t spotted until I’d read it again after submission was this… spayed instead of splayed, oops!

    • Me too. My most common typos involve leaving words or letters out. I’ll type something like She went to store where the word the is missing. So annoying!