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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