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Homonyms

Copyright © 2002-2010 by David E. Ross

Homonyms, even when correctly pronounced, do indeed sound the same. In speech, they cannot be distinguished. But speech contains cadences and emphasis that is missing in writing. Thus, in writing, the differences between these words are important.

Actually, these are homophones (sounds the same). True homonyms (named the same) not only sound the same but are also spelled the same, having different meanings and origins. Common usage, however, uses the latter term for the former.

Because of different pronunciations and accents in different English-speaking nations, some of these are homophones only in the United States or even only in parts of the United States.

Some words are pronounced differently for different meanings. Thus, the word groups listed below are homonyms only for the indicated meanings.

There are many more homonyms than those listed below. These were chosen specifically because, in each entry of this list, I have actually seen one word used in a story where the other was meant. Here, each set is in alphabetical order.

ad: short for advertisement

add: opposite of subtract

aerial: antenna

ariel: an African gazelle

air: personal bearing or manner; mien

heir: someone who inherits

aisle: pathway

I'll: I will

isle: island

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Actually, allot and a lot are not a pair of homonyms because the latter is a phrase and not a word.

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allot: distribute

a lot: much, many

allowed: permitted

aloud: not whispered

apatite: a crystaline form of chlorinated or fluoridated calcium phosphate

appetite: desire for food

ascent: climb, upward path

assent: consent, approval

bail: paid to get out of jail (a guaranty to return for trial)

bale: a compressed mass (e.g., cotton, hay)

ball: a round object used in games

bawl: cry

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To accept an unpleasant situation is to grin and bear it.
To do a strip tease is to grin and bare it.

We bare our souls and bear our tragedies.

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bare: uncover

bear: carry; endure stoically; a very large animal

berry: a fleshy fruit

Barry: a masculine name

beach: the shore of a lake or ocean

beech: a kind of tree

beat: hit

beet: a red vegetable

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Those involved in extreme office politics engage in back biting.

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bight: a curve in a shoreline

bite: sink teeth into

byte: a group of computer bits (usually 8 bits, sometimes 4)

blew: past tense of blow

blue: a color

board: a flat piece of wood

bored: wearied from dullness or a lack of excitement

brake: device for slowing down

break: an interruption in a task; to destroy an object

buy: purchase

by: near

bye: good-bye; when a player in a tournament (e.g., in tennis) has no opponent and advances automatically to the next round

caller: someone who calls (e.g., a hog caller)

collar: something worn around the neck (e.g., a dog collar)

callused [of the skin]: thickened and hard

calloused [of feelings]: hardened and harsh

cant: a slope or tilt; secret jargon of thieves

can't: cannot

cent: $0.01, 1¢

scent: aroma

sent: past tense of send

censer: a container in which incense is burned

censor: a person who examines literary works, communications, etc, for the purpose of suppressing parts that may be objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds

sensor: something that senses (e.g., a motion detector)

cereal: a breakfast food made of grain

serial: a story published or a film shown in sequential episodes

chanty (often spelled chantey): a work song, often associated with sailors

shanty: a rickety shack

chic: stylish, elegant (see also chick and chic under Malaprops)

sheik: the leader of an Arab village or family

chord: a line that intersects a circle (geometry); several notes sounded together (music)

cord: a thin rope; an electrical wire

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Far more frequently than seeing shoot when chute is meant, I very often see shute. Nevil Shute was a British author (real name Nevil Shute Norway). Shute has no other meaning than as a name.

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chute: an inclined trough; a slide (e.g., for the luge)

shoot: fire a gun

Cicily: a woman's name

Sicily: an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea

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The expression for touring is sight-seeing because you are seeing whatever is worth being seen, not site-seeing (seeing the place).

The expression is hind sight (looking back or behind), not hind site (a rear place?)

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cite: quote an authority

sight: the sense of seeing

site: place, location

clause: a section of a legal document [used in Santa Clause]

Claus: a man's name; derived from Nicholas or Nicholaus, thus Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus

coarse: containing large particles; rough; harsh; unrefined; having inferior quality

course: route; the track on which a race is run; a program of instruction; a part of a meal served at one time

council: a formally constituted group of decision makers (e.g., city council)

counsel: an attorney; the act of advising

crewel: a form of decorative needlework

cruel: mean

cue: the stick used on the cue ball in billiards; a signal (e.g., to an actor to say his lines, to an orchestra to begin playing)

queue: a line of people (e.g., waiting to enter a theater); a hanging braid of hair on the back the head; a prioritized stack of commands in a computer waiting for resources (e.g., the CPU) to execute

dear: precious

deer: an antlered animal

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The expression dyed in the wool refers to the practice of dying the wool before making the yarn that is then spun into fabric. This tends to make the color more permanent. Metaphorically, dyed in the wool applied to a person means the person has opinions or attitudes not subject to being altered.

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died: no longer living

dyed: changed color through the use of a dye

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The phase meaning "delayed past its proper time" is over-due.

While do is pronounced doo, due is sometimes pronounced dyoo, in which case their confusion is a malapropism.

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do: perform

due: arrive at a specified time

draftee: someone drafted (e.g., into the military)

drafty: subject to drafts of wind (e.g., a room with poorly fitted windows)

dual: a pair

duel: a fight with weapons (usually to the death); figuratively, any fight, even a fight of wits using words

faint: become unconscious; light, pale, barely discernable

feint: a deceptive maneuver in which a fake blow (e.g., boxing) or attack (e.g., war) is made to divert attention from a more serious blow or attack

fair: an exhibition of products

fare: the price of a transportation ticket (e.g., for a train or plane)

fazes: worries, upsets

phases: distinct stages, states, or manifestations

feat: an accomplishment

feet: more than one foot

fete: festival, elaborate party

fillies: young mares; slang for girls or young women

phillies (actually Phillies): professional baseball team from Philadelphia

finish: complete

Finnish: from Finland

fir: a tree in the genus Abies

fur: the fine hair on a mammal

forest: a wooded area

Forrest: a common family name

foul: nasty

fowl: birds often used for food (e.g., chickens, ducks, quail)

gene: a unit of genetic material

jean: pants made from a heavy denim

gilt; golden in color; the thin layer of gold or other material applied in gilding

guilt: remorseful awareness of having done something wrong; responsibility for the commission of crime

groan: moan

grown: reach mature growth

hay: long grass, clover, or alfalfa cut and dried for fodder

hey: an interjection for attracting attention or to express wonder

hear: what you do with your ears

here: in this place, not there

hole: cavity, opening

whole: entire, complete

its: belonging to it (like ours, his, and hers, a possessive without an apostrophe)

it's: it is

jam: press tightly between objects thereby preventing motion; a preserve of whole fruit, slightly crushed, boiled with sugar

jamb: one of the vertical sides of a doorway, window, or other opening

knew: understood thoroughly

new: not old

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The phrase is close knit, not close nit.

Metaphorically, knit is used when referring to things or people being tied together while nit is used when referring to things that are very tiny.

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knit: a cloth made by interlocking a single continuous strand of thread or yarn; the process of making such a cloth

nit: the egg of a louse

know: understand thoroughly

no: not yes

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Describing something that is likely to be unacceptable: That would go over like a lead balloon.

In the past: He led the way.

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lead: a metal

led: past tense of lead [leed]

lie: rest in or get into a horizontal position

lye: a highly concentrated, aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide; caustic soda

load: burden; a charge of ammunition; a quantity that fills a container

lode: a deposit of metallic ore

loan: give temporarily

lone: single

marquee: a rooflike shelter extending above an outer door and over a sidewalk or a terrace; a large tent or tentlike shelter with open sides (e.g., for temporary use in an outdoor party)

marquis: a title of nobility higher than a count or earl but lower than a duke

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Thus, aikido, karate, judo, and tae kwon do are martial arts.

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marshal: an officer of the U.S. federal courts equivalent to a bailiff; in some nations, a military rank just below commander-in-chief

martial: of, pertaining to, or concerned with war or the military life

meat: the edible flesh of an animal

meet: encounter; a competitive athletic event

mete: measure; a boundary

mind: the aggregate of processes originating in or associated with the brain; to pay attention

mined: dug from a mine

miner: someone who works in a mine

minor: a youth not yet old enough to be an adult

moat: a body of water around a fort or castle, part of its outer defence

mote: a speck (e.g., a dust mote)

moose: a large animal of the deer family

mousse: a dessert made of a pudding whipped to include a large amount of air in very tiny bubbles

morays: a kind of eel

mores (moh RAYS): the moral standards of society

morning: the early part of the day, before noon

mourning: feeling sad over the death of a lover

muscles: the parts of the body that move the bones

mussels: molluscs (shellfish) in the same group (bivalve) as clams and oysters

one: integer between zero and two

won: past tense of win, triumphed

overseas: foreign location, literally across the ocean

oversees: supervises

palate: the roof of the mouth

palette: a board on which an artist mixes paints

pallet: a crude bed

pail: a small bucket

pale: lacking color

pass time: to idle away the day

pastime: an activity (which may be used to pass time)

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The euphemism for died is passed away, not past away.

Someone who fainted, passed out.

To ignore someone may involve looking past him.

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passed: went by

past: not present or future; beyond

peace: not war

piece: a part of the whole

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With an accented e, piquéd [pee KAYD] does not belong in this group because it is not pronounced the same. This word refers to a woven-in ribbed pattern in fabric.

Peaked in two syllables [PEE kid] means appears sickly. Since this is not pronounced the same as peeked or piqued, confusion with either of those two would be a malaprop.

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peaked: reached the top (the peak); pointed

peeked: looked (possibly surreptitiously)

piqued: provoked, stimulated

peer: equal

pier: wharf

plain: a flatland with few hills and no mountains; unadorned, not fancy

plane: an aeroplane (airplane); a tool for trimming or smoothing wood

pole: a long, slender object (often wood or metal)

poll: a survey of opinion

populous: having many people

populus: the people collectively

pore: a very tiny hole in the skin through which sweat oozes

pour: spill

profit: what you get when income exceeds expense

prophet: someone who, with divine inspiration, tells the future

quarts: plural of quart (two pints, 1/4 gallon)

quartz: a crystalline form of silica

rack: a framework on which items can be placed or from which they can be hung

wrack: destruction, wreckage; seaweed cast ashore

rain: from clouds to puddles on the ground

reign: rule royally

rein: strap or thong for controlling a horse; [loosely] any kind of control

rancor: malice, spitefulness

ranker [British]: a commissioned officer who rose from the ranks

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The expression is rapt attention (undivided attention), not wrapped attention.

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rapped: to strike with a quick, light blow (e.g., on a door with the nuckles of a clenched fist)

rapt: engrossed, deeply engaged

wrapped: covered with wrapping paper

real: true; existing rather than imaginary; genuine

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Having trouble comprehending an event causes the mind to reel (not real).

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reel: a rotatory device attached to a fishing rod for winding up or letting out the line; sway or rock from a blow, shock, dizziness, intoxication, etc.; stagger

rec: slang for recreation

wreck: destroy, something that has been destroyed

reek: stink

wreak: inflict

retch: vomit

wretch: a person with a miserable personality

right: correct; not left; a fundamental, legal protection under rules of justice

rite: a religious ceremony

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An expense subtracted from income (especially for tax purposes) is a write off.

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wright: someone who makes things (e.g., a wheelwright); the making of something (e.g., to wright iron into wrought iron furniture)

write: put words or numbers on paper (including in a book of accounts)

road: street, avenue

rode: drove, traveled by vehicle or on an animal

role: the part of a character played by an actor in a play; a function or purpose taken on by a person (sometimes written rôle)

roll: to move by turning (e.g., a wheel or ball); to form into a ball or cylinder; a small, individually prepared bread

roomer: boarder, someone who rents a room

rumor: unconfirmed gossip

rote: a memorizing process using repetition, often without a full understanding of what is memorized

wrote: past tense of wrote

rough: not smooth, coarse

ruff: a pleated, starched collar popular in the 16th century

rye: a grain

wry: askew, twisted to one side

salt-peter: (vulgar slang) a penis made of salt

saltpeter (without a hyphen): potassium nitrate, KNO3

scene: the place and surroundings of any event, real or imaginary

seen: past participle of see

scull: a small rowboat, an oar used in such a boat; [Scottish] a large, shallow wicker basket

skull: the bony framework of the head

seamed: sewed a seam in a garment

seemed: appeared

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The expression is sowing wild oats, not sewing wild oats.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

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sew: stitch clothing

sow: plant seeds by broadcasting them onto the ground

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The slang for a sure winner or easy victory is shoo-in, not shoe in. However, shoo-in does not seem to be derived from shoo.

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shoe: protection for your foot while walking

shoo: drive or frighten away

shone: did shine

shown: did show

sink: a basin with water faucets and a drain, used for washing

synch: slang for synchronized

slew

slough
See these under Malaprops.

soar: fly high

sore: bruised

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Thinking thoroughly about something that affects yourself involves soul searching.

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sole: one and only; the bottom of a shoe

soul: what is in us that God gave us to make humans unique

soar: fly high

sore: painful wound

son: male child

sun: a star, the star around which the earth revolves

staid: sedate, modest

stayed: remained, did not leave

stairs: a series of steps for going from one level to another in a building

stares: looks intensely (at something)

stationary: standing still

stationery: paper, envelopes, etc.

steal: illegally take something without the owner's permission

steel: an alloy of iron and carbon (sometimes with other metals)

straight: not bent

strait: a relatively narrow waterway connecting two bodies of water

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Someone who spreads gossip about misdeeds is a tattle tale.

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tail: rear appendage

tale: story

taught: past tense of teach

taut: tight

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their, there, they're

The distinction between these is taught at a very early age in school, but some just do not get it.

There're means there are, not they are. Since this is difficult to pronounce — ther'r — this contraction is rare in speech and thus would not be seen in written dialogue.

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their: belonging to them

there: in that place, not here

they're: they are

threw: [verb] tossed, flung, pitched

through: in one end and out the other

throes: pains, painfully intense emotions

throws: tosses, flings, pitches

throne: the king's chair

thrown: [adjective] tossed, flung, pitched

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to, too, two

Why is it so hard to learn these? Why do I see a short story on the Internet that has many, many sentences such as: "I didn't know what I could do too help but maybe I could." The author who wrote this repeatedly uses too where the correct word is to, in more than one story. On the other hand, the same author wrote: "You're holding me to tight." Here, the correct word was too. Also, he frequently uses your when he means you're. This cannot be a case of mere carelessness. This is illiteracy. This is very distracting and significantly reduces the enjoyment I would get from an otherwise good story.

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to: not from

too: also, very

two: 2

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toe

The phrase meaning to adhere to rules is toe the line, which refers to how runners line up at the starting line with the toes of their running shoes just behind the line, in accord with the rules of track and field.

The phrase meaning to walk quietly is tip toe, which refers to walking on the toes so that the heels of your shoes don't make any noise by contacting the floor.

When a person is dragged along — literally or figuratively — by someone else, that person is in tow.

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toe: one of those little things at the end of your foot

tow: what a tow truck does to a disabled car

told; narrated, made known (by telling)

tolled: rang (e.g., a large bell)

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When an action causes a loss, it takes its toll.

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tole: enameled or lacquered metalware (used to make decorative houseware)

toll: a tax, duty, or fee, as for services or use of facilities; the extent of loss or damage resulting from some disaster

too-too: very, very

tutu: a short, frilly skirt worn by ballerinas

toolies: (??) people who collect tools

tules: marshland, swamp (so called because of the prevalance of tule bullrushes); slang for areas far from urbanization

tough: (of a person) having great physical endurance; (of a material) able to resist breaking when stretched or bent

tuff: a volcanic rock

vain; conceited; unsuccessful (tried in vain means tried unsuccessfully)

vane: blade (e.g., in a windmill)

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The phrase indicating a change of subject is in a different vein.

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vein: blood vessel that carries blood to the heart (as compared with artery, which carries blood from the heart); a stratum of ore, coal, etc; a streak of a different color marking marble or wood; a sustained characteristic (All through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness., Mark Twain)

vial: a small bottle

vile: wicked

vice: a sinful habit

vise: a device for clamping material to be worked upon

waist: the relatively narrow part of the body between the chest and the hips

waste: trash

warn: alert, put on guard, caution

worn: part participle of wear; threadbare, exhausted; used up

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ware, wear, where

The phrase is worse for wear (reflecting the first meaning of wear), not worse for where.

Garments worn under outer clothes are underwear (reflecting the second (noun) meaning of wear), not underware.

On the other hand, construction tools are hardware; computer programs are software; and eating utensils are silverware (even if they are not made of silver). They are goods and not items that are worn as garments.

(Also see where, were, we're and were, wear under Malaprops.)

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ware: an item for sale

wear: gradual deterioration from use; garments (noun) or to cover the body with garments (verb)

where: in what place?

weak: not strong

week: 7 days

weather: rain or shine, fog or clear, hot or cold

whether: if it be the case

whine: a complaint expressed in a really irritating voice

wine: a beverage invented by God

whoa: halt!

woe: emotional pain

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See Troubles with Apostrophes and The Pronoun Problem.

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who's: who is

whose: belonging to who

wont: habit

won't: will not

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"You're raising your voice in a hymn of yore." That is, "You are raising the voice belonging to you in an ancient hymn." (Not "Your raising you're voice … ") Once I actually saw you'r'e.

See Troubles with Apostrophes and The Pronoun Problem.

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yore: time long ago

your: belonging to you

you're: you are


Last updated 28 April 2012

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