Commonly confused homophones (and how to remember which is which) 

academics English grammar

The English language is full of homophones — words that sound the same (or similar) but have different meanings.

Understanding how to properly distinguish between homophones can elevate your writing and your standardized test scores. I have a few tricks to remembering some common ones, shared below!   

There, their, and they’re

You’ve probably seen this one before. One is the plural possessive, one is indicating a location, and is a contraction for “they are.” How can you remember them? The word “there” is spelled similarly to “here” and “where,” so it indicates a location. The contraction “they’re” has an apostrophe, like “we’re” or “how’re,” so naturally it is a shorthand for two words: “they are.”  

Its and it’s

Like other possessive pronouns, such as “his,” “hers,” and “theirs,” the word “its” has no apostrophe and is an unspecified object’s possessive pronoun. On the other hand, “it’s” is a contraction for “it is,” much like “that’s” and “what’s.”  

Insure and Ensure

The word “insure” is related to the word “insurance,” which is financial protection against damages. On the other hand, “ensure” is to make sure of or guarantee something.  

Affect and effect

An action can “affect” the situation, but the end result is the “effect.”  

Imminent and eminent

The word “imminent” shares a start with “immediately” and means “happening soon,” kind of similar to “impending” (though that has a slightly negative connotation). On the other hand, “eminent” means “outstanding” or “highly regarded,” like the Empire state building.  

Then and than

Much like “where” and “there” are location-related, “when” and “then” are time-related. The word “then” refers to a specific time. On the other hand, “than” is a word used in comparing two things. 

Stationary and stationery

This pair is relatively common! My favorite way to remember these correctly is that “stationery” refers to things made of paper (like envelopes, stickers, and notebooks). By process of elimination, “stationary” therefore means “staying still.”   

Can you come up with your own mnemonics for other commonly-confused homophone pairs?

For example, how would you distinguish “compliment” and “complement” or “except” and “accept”?  

This is a great exercise for making sure you really understand the meaning of each word and how to use it. Increasing your command of vocabulary will also help you parse written language more efficiently. Especially today’s ultra-connected world, communication is more important than ever before, and the first step towards becoming a great communicator is collecting a wide range of tools (words!) and learning how to use them well.  

Josephine double-majored in Physics and Mathematics at MIT. She's now an Applied Physics PhD candidate at Stanford University, where she hopes to uncover the mechanisms governing material properties.


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