Their, they’re, there. If your forever annoyed by people using words such as these incorrectly, your not alone—but their is a somewhat understandable reason many get them confused. (And if the spelling in this sentence caused you near-physical pain, you’re not alone there either!)
Linguisticians consider many aspects when classifying and describing words, including the trio of meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.
Flour versus flower
You likely know the meaning of the word “synonym”, relating to multiple words with the same approximate meaning (clever/intelligent, tasty/delicious), and “antonym”, relating to words with the opposite meaning (leave/arrive, good/bad). Synonyms and antonyms do not deal with pronunciation and spelling—words can be said and spelt in any way as long as the meanings fit the required definition.
Homonyms are words that have different meanings, are pronounced the same, and are spelt the same. The word derives from the Greek for “same” and “name”. Examples include “bear” (to carry) and “bear” (the animal), and “club” (a social group) and “club” (a heavy object).
Homophones are words that have different meanings, are pronounced the same, and are spelt differently. The word derives from the Greek for “same” and “sound, voice”. Examples include “flour” (in baking) and “flower” (the plant), and “which” (a choice) and “witch” (a magic practitioner).
There are several more categories for words of differing meaning, including homographs (same spelling, any pronunciation), heterographs (different spelling, same pronunciation), heterophones/heteronyms (different pronunciation, same spelling), and more. Many of these categories overlap and intermingle, depending on a word’s spelling, sound, origin, and more.
More than wordplay
Homophones and homonyms are often used incorrectly. According to scholastic.com, some of the most commonly mixed-up homophones include affect/effect, than/then, which/witch, here/hear, are/our, buy/by, weather/whether, bear/bare, to/too/two, accept/except and the dreaded there/their/they’re and you’re/your groups. Are you guilty of mixing up your homonyms?
Some languages possess more homonyms and homophones than others—tonal languages, for example. Mandarin Chinese is a good example here; the language has many homophonic syllables that are commonly used in wordplay, humour, poetry, advertising, text-messaging and more.
Homonyms and homophones are important considerations in advertising—for example, in cantonese, “four” is a homonym for “death”. This cultural association is so strong that some brands omit fourth versions of their products and jump straight to five to avoid it (Canon’s Powershot camera line went straight from G3 to G5), and elevators skip floors containing the number four. When advertising in an unfamiliar country or language, play it safe and get some advice from a local!
Quiz: Can you identify and correct the homophones and homonyms in the following sentences?
1. I red another chapter of my book on my lunch brake.
2. Susan through the ball to Edwin.
3. Janet poured over her college textbooks.
4. Harriet was unsure weather to go to the party or not.
5. Christopher was badly effected by see-sickness.
6. Some of these sentences may contain multiple homonyms, so keep your eyes pealed.
7. Oliver eight the hole birthday cake in one go!
8. We can go over the proposal next weak to insure its complete.
9. In principal, that shouldn’t be a problem.
10. I’d like to go over and give her a peace of my mind!
Another quiz, available here, removed homonymic words from sentences to test your knowledge. The questions include:
1. ____ in mind that the US constitution protects the right of people to _____ arms.
What combination of “bear” and “bare” is needed here?
2. Of ____ you can try to top the ____ record.
What combination of “course”, “corse”, and “coarse” is needed here?
3. You need to ____ your sources, or the next ____ you’ll see is an “F” on your paper.
What combination of “sight”, “site”, and “cite” is needed here?
Do get in touch and let us know how you did!
1. red = read, and brake = break. 2. through = threw. 3. poured = pored. 4. weather = whether. 5. effected = affected, and see = sea. 6. pealed = peeled. 7. eight = ate, and hole = whole. 8. insure = ensure, and its = it’s. 9. principal = principle. 10. peace = piece.
Answers for the second quiz available here; answers for the questions shown are “bear/bear”, “course/course”, and “cite/sight”.