Whether a brilliant poem or a groan-inspiring pun, I am a complete fool for clever wordplay. For example, read the next couple of sentences out loud:
“Which witch did you meet in Salem?
“Percival the knight often rode at night.”
“A great pirate sees way to seize the seas!”
Did you notice something? Each of these sentences contains a set of homophones – words that have an identical sound, but different meanings.
There are many homophones in the English language. They grab our attention, especially when we see them and read them aloud at the same time.
However, while many writers use homophones to create new witticisms, there is a major pitfall that you could encounter: using the incorrect word! With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more common homophones that can give anyone a headache.
So much has been written about these words (like this post!) that anything I could add almost seems cliché. However, it never hurts to have a reminder, so here are the straightforward definitions:
- There is primarily an adverb that describes a place in time, in space, or in relation to something else (“He stopped over there”).
- Their is a plural possessive pronoun (“Our members will benefit from their participation in the conference”).
- They’re is simply the contraction of “they are” (“They’re a fantastic group of people”).
Always make sure that you use the correct form of these words. Because it is such a common error, your readers might be less forgiving if they see it.
Just like the first set of homophones, these words show us another well-known trouble spot.
- To is a preposition (a word that indicates time and/or space) that describes motion or action toward something.
- Too is typically used as an adverb that shows intensity (“I am too tired to keep running!”).
- Two is a number/quantity.
This example typically confuses us because we use one word more commonly than the other. Because we generally use the word “no” more frequently, many of us accidentally write “no” when we really mean “know.”
These two differ by a single letter, so make sure that you know that “ad” is short for “advertisement” while “add” is a verb (“We have projected that our new campaign will add hundreds of new subscribers.”).
Ah, back to the first example! “Which” simply lets us know that there are different options available (“Which shoes do you prefer?”) or as a way to introduce a clause that helps clarify something (The report, which I read last night, shows a lot of potential growth next quarter.”). In common speech, we generally refer to a “witch” around Halloween.
What Can I Do?
Let’s face it, you’re bound to make a mistake every now and then. While software tools (such as spellcheck) are great for a first pass, proofreading is really your greatest ally if you’re worried about homophone confusion.
Always review your work or ask a colleague to take a look. I like to keep a checklist of common errors like these on my desk as a quick reminder to ensure that I’m always prepared.
Remember, homophones can be tricky, and even the most seasoned writers can fall victim to their inherent traps!