What is a Homophone?
There are many more words in the English language than one might expect, given how similar their pronunciation and spelling can be. They're usually nouns and adjectives, except for those that function as conjunctions or contractions. Once you accept that English contains many pairs or groups of deceptively similar words with different meanings, then you will have a better understanding in sight of how to speak and cite and write the right ones.
They're called homophones: words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings and/or spellings. Not to be confused with homographs, which are words that have multiple meanings without changing the spelling, the homophones featured in this post are often misused because people do not know which spelling corresponds to which meaning. The following will hopefully clarify some of these differences.
What is the Difference Between...
1. Then v. Than
One of the most common misspellings for students, especially as they are learning to write, is the difference between then and than. The change in pronunciation is subtle if existent at all, but the difference is unambiguous.
Then is an adverb to express the passage of time between a previous event and a subsequent one. It can be used in several ways, but always as an adverb. It means at the moment in sentences like:
I decided to change jobs then.
By then, he had moved to New York.
(In this second example, then follows the preposition by, to create an adverbial phrase meaning by that moment in time).
It can also mean after, such as in the following sentence:
She bought a sandwich and then an ice cream.
Than is used exclusively in comparisons. It is a conjunction or a preposition, depending on the sentence, but it always appears between two elements in a comparison or contrast.
As a conjunction:
I would rather play tennis than soccer.
You have more money than I do.
As a preposition:
The dog was bigger than the cat.
2. To v. Too v. Two
Two's a couple, three's too much to handle.
Usually the number two is not conflated with its similarly pronounced counterparts. The confusion more often arises between to (with one "o") and too (with two), especially in younger students' writing and among students for whom English is not the native language.
To is a preposition, indicating direction or motion toward.
We are going to the mall.
I wish I could travel to Iceland.
It also shows the relationship between people when one is giving and one is receiving an action or object:
I gave a present to Sophie.
"I love it!" she said to me.
It is also the first part of all verbs in the infinitive, also known as the "to" form:
We need to go shopping.
After expressions of personal preference, desire, intention, or obligation, to name a few, the verb that follows must be the infinitive form.
In the New Oxford American Dictionary, there are over 1,000 entries for the word "to."
Too is an adverb.
It can either mean also, as in "I want to come too!" or it can serve as a modifier to increase the degree of quantity or description already provided, as in "Did we buy too much ice cream?" and "The sweater was too big for him."
3. There v. Their v. They're
There most commonly functions as an adverb. It means in, at, or to an aforementioned place. It is considered an adverb because it modifies the preceding verb:
Yes, I have been to Paris. We went there for Christmas last year.
There modifies the verb went, which it immediately follows.
It is also used to indicate the existence of something, in there is or there are:
There is a bakery two blocks away from my house.
In this school, there are one hundred students.
Their is the third person plural possessive adjective. It demonstrates ownership by a group of people.
Their apartment is in New York.
The children rode their bicycles in the park.
They're is simply a contraction of they are, which is the third person plural form of the verb to be.
They got stuck in traffic, so they're going to be late.
I think I lost my keys because they're not in my backpack.
4. Affect v. Effect
The simplest way to distinguish these two words, as they are most commonly used, is by their parts of speech: affect is the verb, and effect the noun.
To affect means to influence or bring about a change in something.
Will the weather affect our travel plans?
My brother's opinion affects what I think.
The effect is the result or consequence after something has been changed.
The effect of the weather is particularly extreme in the winter.
My brother's opinion has a strong effect on me.
There are, of course, a couple additional complications to this general rule.
Affect can be a noun as well. A person's affect is a mood or how that person feels, but this meaning is almost exclusively reserved for discourse about psychology.
His affect revealed an unusual personality trait.
And effect can also be a verb, with a similar but less often intended meaning to that of affect. To effect change means to bring about change. As a verb, effect means to cause or to make happen. It is similar to but not the same as to affect, which means to influence.
5. Accept v. Except
We accept invitations, nominations, unexpected or inevitable realities, and people who we want to make feel welcome in a new group.
The verb to accept means to agree to receive something offered, or to acknowledge something as true.
Except can be a preposition and a conjunction. Often we use the preposition, as in sentences such as:
He likes all flavors except blueberry.
The word except excludes the item that follows from whatever common trait the items in the preceding part of the sentence share. He likes every flavor other than blueberry.
As a conjunction, except introduces an exception or a deviation from the rule or sentence that precedes it. For example:
She did not tell us any details of where we were going, except that it was cold.
My sister and I are almost identical except I have brown eyes and she has green eyes.
6. Allusion v. Illusion
An allusion is something that alludes to something else; it makes reference to an idea, person, story, or external source that is not explicitly stated. Our literature, films, music, and even everyday speech are filled with allusions to historical, literary, and religious figures.
The lyrics to Led Zeppelin's song "Ramble On" make an allusion to The Lord of the Rings.
You can also allude to something by talking around it while not directly mentioning the subject itself:
My colleague alluded to the fact that he had missed three days of work in a row but neglected to give any concrete explanation for his absence.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, allude and allusion come from the Latin word alludere: from ad (toward) + ludere (to play); to play at, or hint at, something.
An illusion is something that your senses perceive to be different from the way it actually is. As the Roman poet Phaedrus famously said: "Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden."
Optical illusions are a common context for this word, images that play tricks on the eyes and the mind:
An illusion is a deceptive impression or a false idea:
A central theme in the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the conflict between illusion and reality among the characters who cannot distinguish what is real from what is only imagined.
The lawyer had no illusions about his client's guilt; he was going to lose the case.
Another common usage is the phrase to be under an illusion, or to believe mistakenly:
The students were under the illusion that class had been cancelled for the day, so they did not prepare any of their homework.
While illusion shares part of its derivation with allusion, the roots at the beginning of the words are responsible for the difference in meaning:
Illusion comes from the Latin word illudere: in (against) + ludere (to play); to mock.
7. Compliment v. Complement
A compliment is an expression of a positive quality or praise for someone. When you want to say something nice to someone, you give that person a compliment:
I love your shoes! They look great on you.
If you are a person who gives compliments often, you are complimentary.
If a hotel offers a free breakfast buffet included in the price, it is complimentary.
A complement is one thing that pairs well with another thing; it completes the combination.
The chocolate was the perfect complement for the red wine.
To complement, as a verb, means to add something to improve or perfect it.
A simple scarf can complement any stylish winter coat.
Complementary is the corresponding adjective:
The coat came with a complementary scarf.
8. Illicit v. Elicit
Illicit means illegal or forbidden. It is an adjective.
The mayor passed a new law to counteract the town's illicit drug market.
Elicit means to evoke or call up, usually referring to a response from someone reacting to a speech or action.
The announcement of a snow day will elicit shouts of delight from the students.
9. Write v. Right v. Rite
To write is to record or compose, usually with pen and paper.
Would you like to write another blog post about grammar? (In the present)
Right as an adjective means correct or morally sound.
Make sure you choose the right response on the multiple-choice test.
Telling the truth is the right thing to do.
Right as a noun means a privilege or entitlement that citizens have under the law, according to moral or legal standards.
Americans have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It can also mean the opposite of wrong, to represent a collective of all things that are right, honorable, and just.
Children must learn the difference between right and wrong, although sometimes it is difficult to distinguish them.
A rite is a social practice, ceremony, or a religious act. It is often used in the phrase rite of passage to indicate a tradition that occurs as someone turns a certain age and enters the subsequently new stage of life that follows. It is a sign of growing up.
In the Jewish faith, celebrating bar or bat mitzvah is a child's rite of passage into adulthood upon turning thirteen years old.
English teachers may consider reading Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a rite of passage because of its significance in the sphere of American literature and because it is itself a coming-of-age story.
10. Wrote v. Rote
Wrote is the past tense of the verb to write.
I just wrote about the difference among write, right, and rite.
Rote is an adjective to describe an automatic repetition of a studied subject in order to learn it.
Students used rote memorization to learn all of the verb conjugations by heart.
11. Sight v. Site v. Cite
Sight is the noun for what you see with your eyes. It is the power of vision.
To obtain a driver's license, you must prove that you have sufficient eyesight.
Out of sight, out of mind: the saying means that when you are not looking at something, you will not think about it either.
A sight is also a thing to see or behold visually.
The sweeping view of the Tuscan countryside was truly a beautiful sight.
Movies and books often describe characters as falling in love at first sight.
A site is a place on which to construct a building or landmark.
The Parks Department proposed the abandoned campground as the site for constructing a new community garden.
A website is, of course, an online "place" in which to find information specific to a topic or entity. It is often abbreviated site.
"Check our site for updates on future concert tours and dates!" announced the band after the concert.
To cite is to attribute information to the source whence it came. Teachers often remind students of the necessity to cite sources in essays to avoid plagiarism, which occurs when students copy or paraphrase information that does not contain their own original ideas but rather comes from somewhere or someone else. To cite can also mean to quote, as in to recite a quotation by somebody famous or to mention an example.
The boy cited Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech about the values of non-violence.
Scientists cite the melting ice caps as evidence of global warming.
If you want to include a direct quotation, you must cite the original author.