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Homonyms, Word Choice, and Tricky Words: Grammar Review Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Exercises for this concept can be found at Homonyms, Word Choice, and Tricky Words: Grammar Review Practice Exercises.

Homonyms

Now that you understand basic spelling rules, let's take the correct usage of words one step further. It is not unusual to come across words that are spelled differently and have dissimilar meanings, but are pronounced exactly the same. Such words are called homonyms. The Greek words homo, meaning "the same," and onyma, meaning "name," make up the word homonym. The following sample paragraph is full of homonyms. Can you tell what this paragraph is trying to say?

Ewe mite knot awl weighs sea yore riding miss takes write a weigh, sew ewe halve two Czech care fully. Men knee mite yews tulles, like ay computer, two tri two fined and altar thee mist aches, butt sum thymes it seas write thru them.

Likewise, you will frequently encounter words that are spelled exactly the same way, but have completely different meanings. Such words are called homographs, from the Greek words homo and graph, which means "same writing." So, not only being able to spell a word to write it correctly—but knowing which correctly spelled word to use and how to pronounce it—is essential, as well!

Following are some familiar English homonyms and homographs.

Word Choice

Sometimes when writing, you may find it difficult to choose between words or phrases that are so similar that the only difference between them is a simple space or an extra letter. For instance, which of the following sentences would receive high marks from your English teacher?

  1. James thought he was already until he looked down and saw that he was wearing one black sock and one blue sock.
  2. James thought he was all ready until he looked down and saw that he was wearing one black sock and one blue sock.

Answer: b. Why not a? Because already means "previously" or "before now." The sentence implies that James was all [completely] ready [prepared] to do something until he noticed his mismatched socks.

Let's look at another one.
  1. Every day Charlotte helps her sister with her homework.
  2. Everyday Charlotte helps her sister with her homework.

Answer: a. Why not b? Because everyday means "ordinary" or "typical." Choice b implies that "ordinary Charlotte" helps her sister, whereas choice a implies that Charlotte helps her sister every (each) day with her homework.

Let's try one more.
  1. Bill Gates maybe the richest man in the world.
  2. Bill Gates may be the richest man in the world.

Answer: b. Why not a? Because maybe is an adverb meaning "possibly," and in choice a, maybe appears where a verb should be. It really says Bill Gates possibly the richest man … There is no verb in the sentence. On the other hand, may be in choice b is a verb phrase meaning "could be." It really says Bill Gates could be the richest man … This sentence is grammatically correct.

 

Following are other words that are commonly mixed up.

  • altogether/all together
  • alright/all right
  • anymore/any more
  • anyone/any one
  • anyway/any way
  • awhile/a while
  • apart/a part
  • every one/everyone
  • sometime/some time
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