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Correct Word Usage Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 13, 2011

Easily Confused Words: Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

The English language is full of words that are easy to confuse. However, knowing the histories of homonyms, homophones, and homographs may help you remember them. The three words originate from the Greek language:

  • Homonym: homos (same) + nym (name); means "same name for two different definitions" (e.g., lead and lead)
  • Homophone: homos (same) + phone (sound); means "same sound" for two different definitions (e.g., compliment, complement)
  • Homograph: homos (same) + graph (spelling); means "same spelling" for two different definitions (e.g., bow of a ship, bow in her hair)

Homonyms

Homonyms are words that are spelled alike but have different meanings.

Examples:

pitch (throw a ball)                                                       pitch (a black mineral)

bank (a business offering bank financial services)         bank(land alongside or sloping down to a river or lake)

In the following list, each homonym is followed by two definitions.

  • bark: hard covering of a tree or plant; a dog's sound
  • bat: heavy stick or club, used in sports; only mammal that can fly
  • bear: large mammal; to tolerate or support
  • dear: regard with deep affection; expensive
  • down: toward a lower place; soft fine feathers of a young bird
  • exact: precise or accurate; inflict (revenge) on someone
  • fair: entertainment exhibition; reasonable
  • fawn: baby deer; a color; to be servile
  • fine: of very high quality; sum of money exacted as a penalty
  • grave: hole dug in ground to receive a coffin; giving cause for alarm
  • just: morally right and fair; barely or simply
  • kind: considerate and generous; class or type of things having similar characteristics
  • left: opposite of right; departed
  • mead: a drink made from honey; meadow
  • order: arrangement of things to a particular sequence or method; authoritative command or directive, instruction to provide something
  • peak: pointed top of a mountain; stiff brim at front of a cap
  • pile: a heap; the nap of velvet
  • pole: ends of the axis of rotation; fishing rod; long piece of metal or wood
  • trip: to stumble or fall; journey or excursion
  • wave: motion with hand in greeting; ridge of water curling into shore

Homophones

Homophones are pronounced the same way but differ in spelling and meaning.

Examples

    Everyone likes a compliment on something well done.
    These two colors complement each other.

In the first sentence, compliment means an "admiring comment"; in the second sentence, complement means "balance or go together." Although the two words are pronounced alike, their distinction is important and should be learned.

Study the following words a few at a time. They are defined for you. Whenever you are not sure which homophone to use, consult a dictionary.

  • ad (advertisement), add (combine things)
  • allowed (permitted), aloud (audibly)
  • ant (insect), aunt (father or mother's sister)
  • ascent (upward movement), assent (agreement)
  • ate (past tense of eat), eight (8, the number that follows 7)
  • ball (round thing, sphere), bawl (cry noisily)
  • band (group, musicians playing together), banned (barred, excluded)
  • bear (endure; mammal with large stocky body), bare (naked)
  • be (exist), bee (honey-making insect)
  • beach (seashore), beech (deciduous tree)
  • billed (owed), build (construct)
  • blew (past tense of blow), blue (color; depressed)
  • board (plank), bored (uninterested)
  • bolder (more daring), boulder (large rock)
  • born (brought into life), borne (stand)
  • boy (young man), buoy (marker; keep afloat)
  • brake (a device that stops or slows a machine), break (fracture, shatter)
  • bread (food made from flour and water), bred (brought up)
  • by (a preposition expressing a spatial relationship), bye (good-bye), buy (pay money for, purchase)
  • capital (assets; seat of government), capitol (U.S. congress building)
  • caret (mark to show missing text), carrot (vegetable), carat (weight used for gems), karat (measure of gold content)
  • cell (basic unit of living things; range of mobile phone transmitter; a small room), sell (exchange for money)
  • cent (common currency subunit), scent (fragrance), sent (past tense of send)
  • census (poll; survey), senses (physical faculty, intelligence)
  • cereal (grain; breakfast food), serial (sequential; in series)
  • chews (grinds up food before swallowing), choose (select)
  • choral (performed by a choir), coral (hard marine deposit)
  • chute (shaft, tube), shoot (fire a weapon)
  • cite (quote), sight (view, vision), site (location)
  • coarse (rough), course (route)
  • council (board), counsel (advise)
  • currant (small dried grape), current (existing now)
  • dear (beloved, prized), deer (animal with antlers)
  • dew (water droplets), do (act, see to), due (owing)
  • die (stop living), dye (coloring)
  • disc (in computer science, another spelling of disk, or recording), disk (part between bones of the spine)
  • discreet (tactful), discrete (completely separate)
  • discussed (talked over), disgust (revulsion)
  • doe (deer), dough (mixture of flour and water; money)
  • ewe (female sheep), you (person being addressed)
  • feat (achievement), feet (part of the legs)
  • find (discover something), fined (punished by imposing a payment)
  • fir (evergreen), fur (animal hair)
  • flea (bug), flee (run away)
  • flew (past tense of fly), flu (influenza), flue (smoke or heat outlet)
  • for (preposition meaning "in favor of"), four (4), fore (front)
  • foul (unclean, unpleasant), fowl (chicken)
  • knew (past tense of know), new (recently made, recently discovered)
  • grate (bars in front of fire; make into small pieces), great (large in number; important)
  • heal (make well), heel (back of foot), he'll (he will)
  • heard (past tense of hear), herd (a large group of animals)
  • higher (above something else), hire (give somebody work)
  • hoarse (harsh, grating voice), horse (four-legged animal)
  • hole (opening, cavity), whole (undivided, complete)
  • hour (60 minutes), our (belonging to us)
  • idle (not working or in use), idol (object of worship)
  • incite (provoke), insight (clear perception)
  • its (indicating possession), it's (contraction for it is)
  • jeans (pants), genes (basic units of heredity)
  • knead (work dough until smooth), need (require something essential)
  • knows (familiar with), nose (organ of smell), no's (more than one objection)
  • lead (chemical element), led (guided)
  • leased (rented), least (smallest amount possible)
  • lessen (reduce), lesson (instruction)
  • lie (deliberately say something untrue; recline), lye (strong chemical cleaner)
  • links (associations), lynx (short-tailed wildcat)
  • load (something carried or transported), lode (deposit of ore; abundant supply), lowed (mooing sound of a cow)
  • loan (money lent), lone (only)
  • loot (stolen goods; steal), lute (musical instrument)
  • maize (corn), maze (confusing network of paths)
  • manor (noble's house and land), manner (way something is done)
  • meet (get together), meat (edible animal flesh)
  • mince (cut up), mints (pieces of mint-flavored candy)
  • miner (mine worker), minor (small; describes musical scale)
  • missed (did not hit target), mist (thin fog)
  • morning (early part of day), mourning (period of sadness)
  • no (indicating the negative), know (comprehend something)
  • not (indicating "opposite"), knot (object made by tying)
  • or (otherwise), oar (pole used to propel a boat), ore (mineral from which metal is extracted)
  • overdo (exceed), overdue (late)
  • paced (set the speed), paste (adhesive mixture)
  • pail (bucket), pale (light)
  • pain (ache; feeling of discomfort), pane (piece of glass in window)
  • pair (two of a kind), pare (remove outer layer), pear (fruit)
  • passed (move past; approved), past (what went before)
  • patience (endurance), patients (people given medical treatment)
  • peace (freedom from war; calm), piece (a portion)
  • peal (ring), peel (remove outer layer)
  • pedal (foot-operated lever), peddle (sell)
  • peer (gaze, stare), pier (dock)
  • plain (simple), plane (airplane)
  • plum (fruit), plumb (weight attached to line)
  • praise (admire), prays (speaks to God), preys (hunts someone or something)
  • presence (attendance; being there), presents (gifts)
  • principal (school administrator; main), principle (belief)
  • quarts (one-quarter of a gallon), quartz (crystalline mineral)
  • rain (precipitation), reign (period in office), rein (horse's bridle)
  • raise (lift), rays (narrow beams of light), raze (demolish)
  • rap (tap; music genre), wrap (cover something)
  • read (interpret written material), reed (tall water plant)
  • real (genuine), reel (spool)
  • rest (relax), wrest (gain control)
  • review (look at something critically), revue (variety show)
  • ring (chime; encircle), wring (squeeze)
  • role (position; task), roll (turn over and over)
  • root (underground base of plant), route (course)
  • rote (repetition), wrote (past tense of write)
  • rye (cereal grain), wry (amusing and ironic)
  • sail (travel by water), sale (opportunity to buy goods at discount)
  • scene (sight; view), seen (past participle of see)
  • seam (place where pieces join), seem (look as if)
  • seas (salt waters of Earth), sees (perceive with eyes), seize (take hold of something)
  • serge (strong cloth), surge (rush forward)
  • sew (stitch), so (as a result), sow (plant seed or an idea)
  • side (perimeter of figure), sighed (made exhaling sound)
  • slay (kill), sleigh (horse-drawn carriage for in the snow)
  • soar (fly), sore (painful)
  • sole (only; bottom of foot), soul (spirit; essence)
  • some (a number of), sum (total; money)
  • spade (shovel), spayed (neutered an animal)
  • staid (sedate, serious), stayed (remained)
  • stair (step), stare (long, concentrated look)
  • stake (thin, pointed post in ground; bet), steak (cut of beef)
  • stationary (not moving), stationery (writing paper)
  • steal (take something unlawfully), steel (alloy of iron and carbon)
  • straight (not curved), strait (channel joining large bodies of water)
  • suede (leather with soft surface), swayed (swing; influence somebody)
  • summary (short version), summery (warm)
  • tail (rear part of animal's body or aircraft), tale (story)
  • taut (tight), taught (educated)
  • tents (collapsible shelters), tense (anxious, stressed)
  • there (an adverb used to indicate place), their (belonging to them), they're (contraction for they are)
  • threw (past tense of throw), through (movement from one side of something to or past the other)
  • throne (monarch's chair), thrown (past participle of throw)
  • thyme (herb), time (duration; method of measuring intervals)
  • tide (rise and fall of the ocean or other large body of water), tied (joined)
  • two (2), to (preposition indicating direction), too (also)
  • toad (amphibian similar to frog), towed (pull something along)
  • told (past tense of tell), tolled (rang slowly)
  • tracked (followed), tract (area of land or water)
  • trussed (supported), trust (have faith in)
  • vein (vessel carrying blood to the heart), vane (rotating blade)
  • vial (small glass bottle), vile (evil, despicable)
  • vice (immoral habit), vise (tool for keeping things immobile)
  • wade (walk in water), weighed (measured by weight)
  • wail (howl, cry), whale (large ocean mammal)
  • waist (body area between ribs and hips), waste (squander)
  • wait (stay), weight (heaviness)
  • waive (surrender claim), wave (ocean ripple; to motion with the hand)
  • war (armed fighting between groups), wore (past tense of wear)
  • ware (ceramics), wear (have something on body), where (adverb used to question place)
  • warn (caution), worn (showing effects of wear)
  • wax (polish), whacks (sharp blows)
  • way (method; route), weigh (find the weight of something; consider), whey (watery byproduct of the cheesemaking process)
  • weather (climate), whether (introduces alternatives)
  • we'll (contraction for we will), wheel (rotating round part)
  • weak (frail), week (7-day period)
  • which (asks a question), witch (somebody with alleged magic powers)
  • whine (high-pitched sound), wine (alcohol from grapes)
  • who's (contraction for who is), whose (belonging to someone)
  • yoke (animal harness, burden), yolk (yellow of egg)
  • your (belonging to the person spoken to), you're (contraction for you are), yore (in the distant past)
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