Homophones and Homographs and Other Confusing English Words
A lot of Thai students often ask questions about why so many English words have the same spelling but different meanings.
I understand why learning English can be so confusing. Some words sound the same (depending on the local accent), but have different meanings and spellings, while others are spelled the same but have different meanings.
These words are known as Homophones and Homographs..
There are also many other words that look or sound the same or have similar meanings but cannot be interchanged. Many of these words also pose problems for Thai learners of English, so I have compiled a list of the most common of these Confusing Words..
The word homophone originates from the Greek word homos that means “the same” and phonos that means “sound”,
Sometimes a word, when pronounced seems similar to another word but has a different spelling and meaning such as bear and bare. These are similar in pronunciation but are different in spelling as well as in meaning. Sometimes the words may have the same spelling such as rose and rose (the past tense of rise).
These are called homophones.
Examples of common homophones include:
- their and there
- deer and dear
- hear and here
- to, too, and two
Other Examples of Homophones
aisle / isle
ante- / anti-
eye / I
bare / bear
be / bee
brake / break
buy / by
cell / sell
cent / scent
cereal / serial
coarse / course
complement / compliment
dam / damn
dear / deer
die / dye
fair / fare
fir / fur
flour / flower
for / four
hair / hare
heal / heel
hear / here
him / hymn
hole / whole
hour / our
idle / idol
in / inn
knight / night
knot / not
know / no
made / maid
mail / male
meat / meet
morning / mourning
none / nun
oar / or
one / won
pair / pear
peace / piece
plain / plane
poor / pour
pray / prey
principal / principle
profit / prophet
real / reel
right / write
root / route
sail / sale
sea / see
seam / seem
sight / site
sew / so
shore / sure
sole / soul
some / sum
son / sun
stair / stare
stationary / stationery
steal / steel
suite / sweet
tail / tale
their / there
to / too
toe / tow
waist / waste
wait / weight
way / weigh
weak / week
wear / where
The word homograph originates from the Greek word homos that means “the same” and graph means “to write”, and it is used extensively in language. It can be defined as words that have two or more different meanings where the words have the same spelling, sometimes different pronunciation as well.
For example the word “Read”. This could be the present simple “I read a book every day”, or the past simple “I read a book yesterday.”
Examples of Homographs
arms (weapons) arms (part of body)
ball (sphere) ball (dance)
band (music makers) band (strap)
bass (low musical sound) bass (fish) *
bear (animal) bear (carry)
bluff (steep embankment) bluff (fool)
boil (bubble) boil (skin sore)
bow (bend) bow (part of ship) bow (weapon) *
box (container) box (hit) box (shrub)
brush (tool) brush (undergrowth)
can (container) can (able)
case (container) case (condition)
colon (part of body) colon (punctuation mark)
count (royalty) count (number)
date (fruit); date (on calendar) date (companion)
duck (bird) duck (avoid) duck (cloth)
fan (admirer) fan (cooling device)
fast (quick) fast (starve)
fine (good quality) fine (payment for wrongdoing)
firm (hard) firm (company)
fly (insect) fly (move through air)
fresh (new) fresh (bold)
gum (chewing treat) gum (mouth part)
hold (grasp) hold (part of ship)
jam (preserved fruit) jam (squeeze) jam (impromptu music)
lap (part of body) lap (course) lap (drink)
lean (slant) lean (thin)
left (direction) left (went)
lie (untruth) lie (recline)
loaf (lounge) loaf (bread)
lumber (wood) lumber (walk slowly)
page (call) page (of paper) page (youth)
pen (for writing) pen (enclosure)
pitcher (container) pitcher (in baseball)
pop (sound) pop (popular) pop (father) pop (soda)
pound (weight) pound (kennel) pound (hit)
prune (fruit) prune (cut)
pupil (part of eye) pupil (student)
racket (for tennis) racket (scheme) racket (noise)
ring (circle) ring (sound of bell)
row (in a line) row (with oars) row (fight)*
sock (hit) sock (stocking)
tap (hit lightly) tap (faucet)
swallow (bird) swallow (gulp)
well (good) well (for water)
nail (body part) nail (hit with a hammer)
Other Confusing Words
There are many other confusing words in the English language. These words may have similar meanings, similar spellings, or similar sounds. These words cannot be interchanged and it is necessary to learn the meanings and differences of these words.
Here is a short list of the most commonly confused words. After the list, you will see a short explanation of some of the words that Thai people often get confused. These words are marked with an asterisk*
Advise / advice*
Affect / effect*
Aloud / allowed*
Already / all ready*
Altogether / all together
All right / alright
beside / besides
Borrow / lend*
clothes / cloths
Develop / expand
Desert / dessert*
experience / experiment
fail / fell*
its / it’s*
last / latest
lay / lie*
lose / loose
Say / tell*
Travel / commute
Loan / lease
Loss / lost
Currency / coin*
Speak / talk*
principal / principle
quite / quiet
some time / sometimes*
Here are some explanations from the above list.
Accept / except. This shouldn’t really be too difficult bit I have seen a sign saying “We are excepting admissions for the new courses”.
To accept is to receive, and except is to exclude, usually.
He accepted the check from the sponsor.
Except usually means “unless” or “excluding,” but it’s sometimes used as verb “to leave out.”
All the students except Lek were on time.
Advise / advice
Advise is a verb, whereas advice is a verb.
I advise you to take an umbrella.
You didn’t listen to my advice, so you got wet.
Affect / effect
Affect is a verb. Effect is usually a noun , but can also be a verb.
Using your mobile phone and not paying attention in class will affect your grades.
The effect of the drought in the north of Thailand is an increase in the price of oranges.
Aloud / allowed
Aloud is an adverb and describes how we speak. It refers to the sound that comes out of our mouths (speech).
Allowed is the past tense of the verb to allow, which means to permit.
If you read English books out aloud, it will help your English speaking skills.
You are not allowed to use mobile telephones during the exam.
Already / all ready
Already is an adverb used to describe something that has happened before a certain time.
All ready is a phrase meaning completely prepared.
We are late. The meeting has already started.
I have packed my bags, got my ticket and put on my shoes. I am all ready to go.
Borrow / lend
These two words are often confused. They have almost the sa,e meaning, but the difference is in the direction.
It is easier to remember that you borrowfrom someone and lend to someone, although sometimes the words from and to are omitted.
May I borrow your book? (borrow from you).
I can see you don’t have a pen. Here, I can lend you mine.
Desert / Dessert
Two very different meanings.
Desert can be adj., noun or verb. As an adjective and a noun the word refers to dry land with no vegetation.
It is not a good idea to travel across the desert (n) alone.
Camels are able to survive in desert (adj.) conditions.
Desert as a verb is pronounced differently. In fact it is pronounced the same as dessert.
It is not a good idea to desert your best friend. (Abandon or leave).
Dessert is typically the last course of a meal. It can be ice cream. pie or fruit.
May I see the dessert menu please?
Fail / Fell
Actually there is quite a big difference. I think the problem for Thai people is the difficulty in being able to hear the difference in the vowel sound.
To fail means to be unsuccessful.
Fell is the past tense of fall.
The boy fell down the stairs and broke his arm.
Its / It’s
Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it.
The dog ate its food.
It’s is sort for it is or it has.
It’s my birthday today.
It’s been a long time since we met.
Lay / Lie
Money is a valued entity that can be used in exchange for another entity. Money is the amount of this entity we hold. It can be cash, credit card and savings in the bank.
Cash means money in the form of notes (bills ..US) or coins. If you pay cash you definitely use notes or coins (not credit cards, checks or other means of payment).
After working so hard for six months, I have saved enough money to buy a new car.
I have a lot of money in the bank, but I don’t have any cash to pay the taxi.
Raise / Rise
The verbs raise and rise both refer to something going “up”. The main difference between them is that raise is transitive (it must have a direct object) and rise is intransitive (no direct object).
- Something raises something.
- Something rises.
Please raise your hand if you have any questions.
The sun rises at 6 am in Bangkok.
Say / Tell
Yes, this is also a good example. Thank you.
Whole means complete or all of.
He has traveled over the whole of Thailand.
He ate the whole Durian by himself.
Hole is an opening or a gap through something.
The man was looking where he was going and he fell in the hole.
The prisoner escaped by making a hole in the wall.