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How to Avoid Making Mistakes with Homonyms

How to Avoid Making Mistakes with Homonyms


You probably would recognize one if you saw one, but might not know the definition: one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning (such as the noun quail and the verb quail) (Webster's).

But...a homonym doesn't have to be spelled exactly the same or even pronounced exactly the same to qualify as a homonym. Really, it's a pair or trio of similar words that look and sound similar--but not necessarily the same. (So I quibble with Webster's definition, as there are many in my list below that aren't spelled the same, nor sound exactly the same, but are still often confused.)

So the next time you use one of these words, maybe ask yourself if you've been using it correctly. Some can have subtle differences even in definition, such as further and farther, leading to confusion. When in doubt, ask. Google is your friend. (And Grammar Girl has tons of answers to these common homonym questions.)

Commonly mistaken homonyms:

accept/except (accept: verb meaning to receive; except: verb meaning to leave out)

affect/effect (affect: usually a verb meaning to influence or alter; effect: something that follows an antecedent)

advice/advise (advice: recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct; advise: to give someone a recommendation about should be done)

all ready/already (all ready: everyone in a group is prepared or ready for something; already: prior to a specified or implied past, present, or future time)

all together/altogether (all together: everyone/everything is together; altogether: wholly, completely)

allude/elude (allude: to make indirect reference; elude: to avoid or evade)

amoral/immoral (amoral: having or shown no concern about whether behavior is right or wrong; immoral: not moral; conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles)

anyone/any one (anyone: any person at all; any one: any single thing/person)

bear/bare (bear verb: usually to accept or allow oneself to be subjected to especially without giving way; bare: lacking clothing or exposed)

brake/break (brake: something used to slow down or stop movement or activity; break: to separate into parts with suddenness or violence)

capital/capitol (capital: the seat of government, such as London is the capital city of England; capitol: a building in which a state legislative body meets)

complement/compliment (complement: something that fills up or completes something else; compliment: expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration)

conscience/conscious (conscience: sense of consciousness of the moral goodness of one's own conduct; conscious: having mental faculties not dulled by sleep, faintness, or stupor)

farther/further (farther: usually suggests a greater distance or more advanced point; further: to a greater degree or extent)

forth/fourth (forth: onward in time, place, or order; fourth: the number four in a series)

hear/here (hear: to perceive via listening; here: in or at this place)

ingenious/ingenuous (ingenious: having or shown an unusual aptitude for discovering, inventing, or contriving; ingenuous: showing innocent or childlike simplicity and candidness)

it's/its (it's: contraction for it is; its: possessive of it)

lie/lay (lie intransitive verb: to be or stay at rest in a horizontal position; lay transitive verb: to put or set down)

maybe/may be (maybe: adverb meaning perhaps; may be: verb indicating something might happen or be true, etc.)

principle/principal (principle: rule or code of conduct; principal: the most important or consequential)

sometime/some time/sometimes (sometime: adverb meaning at some time in the future; some time: meaning a period of time; sometimes: adverb meaning now at then, at times)

than/then (than: usually used for comparison to indicate the difference between one item and another; then: at that time or following another event)

there/their/they're (there: in that place; their: possessive of his or her, plural; they're: contraction for they are)

to/too/two (to: a preposition to indicate movement or direction; too: besides, also or to an excessive degree; two: one more than one, the number two)

weather/whether (weather: the state of atmosphere, such as snow, rain, storm, etc.; whether: a conjunction offering up a sometimes inferred choice between two alternatives

you're/your (you're: the contraction for you are; your: possessive of you)

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How to Correctly Use Quotation Marks

How to Correctly Use Quotation Marks