So what is a homophone anyway, and why should a writer care? Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different spellings and meanings (homo=the same, phone=sound). These are words that are fine when you’re speaking them, but writing them can sometimes be a bit more confusing.
For this post, I’ll highlight three sets of homophones that I see giving people the most trouble. Here are two words that I see misused and mixed up the most often: you’re and your. You’re is a contraction of you are (see my previous nitty-gritty post about the apostrophe). Your is possessive, meaning that the word represents something belonging to you. The best way to break it down and remember which one to use when writing is to break up the contraction of you’re.
I think you’re going to enjoy this book. (I think you are going to enjoy this book.)
Is that your book? (Is that the book that belongs to you?)
Your very pretty. (Your pretty what? What belongs to you that’s very pretty?)
Let’s take you’re car to the store. (Let’s take you are car to the store. Makes no sense.)
Another common homophone mix-up is they’re/their/there. One of these is a contraction, like you’re, so again, you can split it up into its component words to clarify the meaning for yourself. As for the other two words, someone might have an easy to trick to remembering which spelling means what; but, failing that, you’ll just have to memorize them.
They’re is a contraction of they are.
Their is possessive, referring to something that belongs to them.
There refers to a place or location, usually a little farther away than here.
They’re running late. (They are running late.)
I love Fluffy, but he’s their cat. (I love Fluffy, but he belongs to them.)
The book is on the table over there. (The book is on the table a short distance away, rather than table here close by.)
Their running late. (Being possessive, using their makes no sense. What belongs to them that is running late?)
I love Fluffy, but he’s there cat. (Meaning the cat that is there instead of here?)
The book is on the table over they’re. (The book is on the table over they are. Um, what?)
Some other commonly misused homophones:
To is a preposition, and usually refers to direction or is the infinitive form of a verb. He went to the store.
Too means also. I love pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms—and sausage, too!
Two is the number after one and before three. I was hungry so I ate two burgers.
Hear means to listen or to be aware of sound. I hear the neighbor’s dog barking again.
Here is similar to there, but usually closer. Sit here on the sofa next to me.
By is a preposition, and usually functions as from or as part of a location. This book is by my favorite author. Come by my house at ten.
Buy means to purchase or accept. I need to buy dog food tonight.
Bye is a shortened form of good-bye, a farewell greeting. Bye, Jimmy! See you in school tomorrow.
Yes, English can be a confusing language, and the abundance of homophones doesn’t make it any easier. If you text your friend that “their running late,” he or she will usually know what you mean and it’s not a big deal. But if you’re turning in a paper for school, or a short story for your creative writing group, or writing a blog post selling your services as an editor, these little homophone mix-ups become a much bigger deal.
If you hear of a trick to help you keep straight which spelling means what, please share! But otherwise, good old fashioned memorization (and maybe another pair of eyes to read over your work) will be your best friends for helping with homophones.