You composed a piece of writing you’re proud of and eagerly awaited the coveted A grade. Sadly, however, your English instructor returned the assignment, and you see you missed the mark.
Looking closely, you notice she had circled the same words throughout your assignment: “its” and “it’s.”
“How can such small words bring a lower grade?”
While “its” and “it’s” are short words, the difference is huge. These two words are among the most common homophones in English grammar.
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What are Homophones?
Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
Typically, homophones come in pairs, as in the two that confused the student above. Other times, more than two words might sound the same but all have different meanings and spellings.
Take, for example, the common homophones to, too and two.
These words are pronounced exactly the same; however, their definitions are completely different, and they are spelled differently.
Don't confuse homophones with homonyms. The latter are words that have the same spelling and sound alike but have different meanings. “Mean” is an example of homonyms: “I mean,” versus “She's mean.”
Another similar-sounding word is homograph. Words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different origins are homographs. Fine can mean either of good quality or a penalty, as in a parking ticket.
A List of Confusing Common Homophones
Problems with clarity arise when a writer uses an incorrect homophone. Such errors confuse the reader.
Below are five common homophones every writer should know.
1. Its and It’s
“It” illustrates an exception to grammar rules of possession. Generally ‘s shows ownership, but with it, the ‘s is a contraction for it is.
Its shows possession, and it’s reflects the contraction of it is.
Consider these examples of correctly using its and it's:
- The night sky, alight with all its twinkling stars, created a magical feeling for the couple as they walked hand in hand through the field.
- It’s a beautiful night tonight with all the twinkling stars!
2. To, Too and Two
These three homophones, to, too and two have different spellings, and writers often mix them up.
To is a preposition or part of an infinitive verb. Too is an adverb that means also. Two is a number.
- She wanted to share her chocolate, so she took some to her teacher.
- She got sick because she ate too much chocolate.
- She ate only two pieces of chocolate, but she still got sick.
3. Affect and Effect
A third pair of homophones involves the use of affect and effect. When pronounced quickly, these two words sound the same.
English speakers often interchange one spelling for the other.
Affect is a verb that means to cause change. The noun effect indicates something that follows a cause. An affect causes an effect.
- His arrogant attitude affects the entire room of listeners.
- His arrogant attitude has a chilling effect on the entire room of listeners.
4. Their, There and They’re
A fourth common example involves the use of their, there and they’re. As with all homophones, pronunciation for all three is the same.
The adverb there indicates a specific place. The pronoun their shows possession by two or more. They're is a contraction for there is.
- There is an apple pie cooling in the window.
- Their apple pie is cooling in the window.
- They’re going to eat the delicious apple pie after it cools in the window.
5. Your and You’re
A fifth common homophone pair includes your and you’re.
Your is a pronoun referring to the second person, you. You're is a contraction for you are.
- Your book is on the floor.
- You’re bicycling to the library to check out a book.
Knowing which homophone to use is important in communicating clearly.
Using the correct homophone in a sentence is about more than picking the right word.
The accurate homophone adds clarity and meaning to writing, which obviously helps in getting your message across to the reader.
To know whether you are using homophones correctly, take your mind through a few quick mental exercises to teach yourself when to use which spelling.
1. Look Up The Definition Of Each Homophone
Spell check apps can't always correct spellings, so you must know the definitions of these confusing parts of speech.
Merriam-Webster.com prescribes affect as a verb. Affect means “to act on and cause a change (in someone or something).” Quick and Easy Trick: Remember, “affect” shows the action, and action is a verb. “Affect,” and “action” both begin with the letter A.
The word effect is a noun. This word means a “thing.” One of Merriam-Webster's definitions is “the creation of a desired impression.”
When you apply these definitions to the sentences above in No. 3, “affect” is the correct homophone in the first sentence because it is a verb. The attitude is doing something. The second sentence should uses “effect” because the attitude is creating a specific impression.
- Affect = action
- Effect = thing or noun
2. Make a Note Of Confusing Words While Reading
Taking notes will help you gather examples and learn their different uses.
If you are regularly confused by a particular homophone, consider adding it to a list of personal grammar errors, synonyms, and vocabulary words. Refer to this list when self-editing.
3. Review The Context Of The Word
Context refers to the setting or situation surrounding the homophone. By looking at context in the sentence, or contextual clues, you can figure out which homophone should be used because you know the definitions.
To is an adverb that shows movement or direction, as a rule.
In the sentences under No. 2 above, the first sentence requires to because the subject is taking chocolates TO her teacher. Here, to refers to direction toward.
- To = action toward
The second sentence should use too because this spelling of the homophone shows a quality of excess. “Too much chocolate” reveals excess.
- Too = excess
Too can additionally mean also. Usually, this word appears at the end of a sentence, so a writing clue might be if too at the end of a sentence, the proper use is double-O. For example:
- I ate chocolate, and I ate apple pie too.
Here too means also.
Most people intuitively know two refers to a number, which means in the third sentence under No. 2 above, this spelling is correct because a number is appropriate. “She ate only ____ pieces of chocolate” provides the context.
- Two = number
4. Expand Those Contractions
If the word is a contraction and contains an apostrophe, then use the longer form in the sentence to see if it makes sense.
A contraction is a shorter version of two words that have been squeezed together by replacing a letter or two with an apostrophe. “It’s” and “they’re” are contractions.
It’s is the contraction form of the two words “it is.” They’re is the contraction of “they are.” You’re is the contraction for “you are.”
For example, consider the second sentence example under No. 1:
- It’s a beautiful night tonight with all the twinkling stars!
To help you decide whether you are using the correct form, ask yourself, “Does the sentence make sense if I use “it is” in place of “it’s?”
The meaning of the sentence is clear using the contraction it’s, so this spelling is accurate.
Humorous Homophone Examples
When used incorrectly, the intended meaning can be unclear and inadvertently funny.
Here are a few more examples of English homophones.
- He held the bumblebee, unafraid, in his bare/bear hands. (To determine the correct spelling, picture a little boy with big, furry bear hands and a bear with tiny hands, uncovered and unprotected.)
- The nurse, overworked and exhausted, finally lost her patients/patience. (Did she lose sick people, or did she finally get frustrated and yell?)
- His hare/hair was out of control this morning. (Was his pet bunny hyperactive because it was young, or did he wake up with an extreme case of bedhead?)
As these three examples show, using the wrong homophone can lead the reader down an unintended, although comic, path.
Common Homophones: The Final Word
We use dozens of homophones in the English language every day.
Learning English homophones and their differences takes some study, but the effort pays huge dividends when you write clearly. With practice, any writer can become proficient in these five most common homophones and improve their writing skills.
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