Correct Word Usage Help (page 2)
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 are words that are spelled alike but have different meanings.
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 are pronounced the same way but differ in spelling and meaning.
- 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)
Homographs are words spelled alike but have a different pronunciation or meaning (e.g., the bow [bou] of a ship, a bow [b ] that decorates something.
- We walked to the bow of the ship.
- Wrap that gift with a bow.
Changing pronunciation affects meaning. To show the differences in meaning, transliteration (loosely defined) is used to show pronunciation in the list that follows. The sounds of the letters are written in more easily recognizable form. Capital letters indicate the accented or stressed syllables. Then the homographs are used in sentences to clarify meaning.
- Affect: 1. ehFEKT—to change; 2. AFFekt—a person's feelings or emotion
- My budget definitely affects how much I go out to dinner each month.
- Following the tragedy, her affect was distinctly subdued.
- Alternate: 1. ALternit—the next choice; 2. ALternait—switch back and forth
- Carl is running as an alternate in the race.
- In this recipe, alternate the addition of the flour and the eggs.
- Bass: 1. BASE—a string instrument; 2. BASS (rhymes with mass)—a fish
- We wondered how a child could play the bass, such a large instrument.
- Bass seems to be a favorite fish choice in restaurants.
- Close: 1. CLOZE—to shut; 2. CLOS—near
- Close the door, please!
- Our children are playing close by.
- Desert: 1. dihZURT—to leave; 2. DEZert—arid region
- Please don't desert me when I need your help.
- The Arizona desert is a beautiful place when the cacti bloom.
- Dove: 1. DUV—a bird; 2. DOEV—jumped off
- The dove has become the symbol of peace and love.
- A foolish child dove off the high bridge.
- Excuse: 1. EKskyooz—to let someone off; 2. ekSKYOOS—a reason or explanation
- The judge said, "I'll excuse your speeding this time, but don't let it happen again!"
- He continued, "No excuse will be acceptable."
- House: 1. HOWS—a building that serves as living quarters; 2. HOWZ— to provide with living quarters
- Our house is more than a hundred years old.
- We can't house any more pets.
- Invalid: 1. inVALid—not valid; 2. INvahlid—an ill person
- You haven't paid your bill, so your membership is invalid as of today.
- He became an invalid after a massive stroke.
- Lead: 1. LEED—to guide; 2. LED—a metallic element
- I will lead you to the exit.
- We found lead in the old paint.
- Minute: 1. MINNit—sixty seconds; 2. myNOOT—tiny
- It takes one minute to drive from Exit 10 to Exit 9.
- Your contribution to this class has been minute.
- Perfect: 1. PERfekt—exactly correct; 2. perFEKT—to make correct
- My spelling is not always perfect.
- I'm trying hard to perfect it.
- Produce: 1. PROdoos—vegetables; 2. proDOOS—bring forth
- My favorite place in the market is the produce aisle.
- My friend's son produces CDs.
- Record: 1. RECKord—a list; 2. RECKORD—best yet; 3. reKORD— to write down
- I've kept a record of all my lunch and snack expenses for six months.
- We made the trip in record time.
- Record your voice for me.
- Row: 1. ROH—a line; 2. ROUW—a fight
- I planted a row of annual flowers.
- What a row they had! Finally the police came to break up the fight.
- Separate: 1. SEPerATE—to divide into groups; 2. SEPret—not joined together
- SEPerATE the cotton and the wool socks into two piles.
- The dark socks were kept SEPret from the white ones.
- Tier: 1. TEER—layer; 2. TYER—a person who ties
- The first tier of the cake was pure chocolate.
- Can you imagine being known as the best tier of bows?
- Tear: 1. TARE—to rip; 2. TEER—fluid in eye; flow fluid from eye
- If you tear the package at the perforation, it's much easier to open.
- The pollution made my eyes tear.
- Wind: 1. WHINEd—to coil up; 2. WINd—the blowing air
- I dislike having to wind the kite string.
- The wind lifted the kite high into the sky.
- Wound: 1. WOOND—to injure; 2. WOWND—coiled up
- Tim didn't mean to wound the animal with the BB gun.
- A bandage was wound around the dog's leg.
Incorrectly Used Words and Phrases
We all know of words or phrases that are frequently misused. For example, consider the use of anxious and eager. These two words are misused on a regular basis.
- Incorrect: I'm anxious to meet your family.
Do you mean that you are nervous, worried, or uneasy about meeting the family? If you do, then use the word anxious—think anxiety. If not, choose a more precise word.
- Correct: I'm eager to meet your family.
Are you excited, ready, or enthusiastic to meet the family? That's what eager means.
On the other hand, misused words and phrases present an additional challenge. There is no single list of words and phrases to study; there are books of them. How can you learn more about these frequently misused words? People are usually unaware of this type of error (that's why people keep saying irregardless). If you are lucky, someone will point out your errors; if not, you have to make an effort to find them. You might want to buy a book about word usage or use the Internet to find lists of errors and their corrections. An excellent book source is The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1996 and New York: bartleby.com, 2000). If you buy this book or log on to the website, you will find much more than just help with homonyms. The information addresses grammar, style, pronunciation, and spelling as well as other topics.
The following is a list of commonly misused or confused words and phrases.
- aggravate (make worse), annoy (infuriate)
The third fall on the same knee really aggravated the injury.
- among (compares three or more), between (compares two or more)
The noise from the upstairs apartment finally began to annoy us.
Among all six counties, ours is the most progressive.
- amount (quantity), number (figure used in counting)
Child care is divided between the parents.
The amount of paper we use is staggering!
- anxious (feeling nervous), eager (enthusiastic and excited)
- anywhere (There is no such word as anywheres.)
- As (adverb, equally), like (preposition, similar to) We use like or as to say that things are similar. Use like before a noun or pronoun.
The number of sheets in a package is 200.
We'll meet you anywhere you say.
- Incorrect: She looks as her sister.
- Correct: She looks like her sister.
- Correct: He ran like the wind.
On the other hand, as is used like a conjunction before a clause.
- Correct: Nobody loves her as I do.
- Correct: Do as I do.
- In informal English, you will often hear like used as a conjunction instead of as. However, the following use of like is still neither standard nor accepted.
- Incorrect: Nobody loves Gary like I do.
- Correct: Nobody loves Gary as I do.
- Correct: Monty does as Pat does.
- Correct: Aidan looks like his mother.
- bring versus take
Incorrect: When we go to the mountains on Saturday, let's bring our skis.
When you are viewing the movement of something from the point of departure, use take. When you think of moving something from the point of arrival, use bring.
- fewer versus less
Correct: When you come to the party, please bring a bottle of wine.
Incorrect: Ten items or less. Sign at the checkout in a supermarket.
You can count the items, so you need to use the number word, which isfewer.
Correct: Ten items or fewer.
If you can't count the substance, then you should use less.
Correct: You should eat less meat.
- have versus of
This sentence is correct because meat is uncountable.
Incorrect: I never would of thought that he'd behave like that.
Use would have.
Correct: I never would have/would've thought that he'd succeed.
Use should and could correctly.
Incorrect: He should of come with me.
Correct: He should have/should've come with me.
Incorrect: She could of had any job she wanted.
- double negative
Correct: She could have had any job she wanted.
Incorrect: I'm not speaking to nobody at this party!
Since not is a negative, you cannot use nobody in this sentence.
- went versus gone
Correct: I'm not speaking to anybody at this party!
Incorrect: I should have went to work yesterday.
The correct form is should + have + past participle (review Chapter 3 if you have any problem with this concept).
- awful (terrible) versus very (extremely) Correct: His speech was awful.
Correct: I should have gone to work yesterday.
- Correct: His voice was very weak.
- Incorrect: His voice was awful weak.
- Correct: His voice was awfully weak.
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