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6 Commonly Confused Homophones

Twins representing commonly confused homophones

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get your proofreaders and editor on your case with a vengeance, it’s falling prey to homophone confusion.

Homophones are words that sound alike when you’re speaking out loud but have different spellings and completely different definitions.

It might seem, to some, like a small thing – but using the wrong homophone can change the meaning of your sentence entirely (sometimes to unintentionally hilarious effect), and leaves a bad impression with those who have otherwise enjoyed reading your work.

Because of this, it’s essential to make sure you’re choosing the right word – and that you make a ‘homophone sweep’ one of your sequential editing stages. (See our article here for some more advice on turning your editing into a structured process instead of an exasperating free-for-all.)

Today, let’s take a look at six homophones that writers most commonly get confused.

 

Bear/Bare

Use the noun bear when referring to the large, hairy mammal. The verb bear can also show the act of supporting or holding, and finally for directions (bearing):

  • Where did that brown bear sneak off to?
  • The truck can hardly bear the weight of the load.
  • She bore the punishment with dignity.
  • Bear right at the cross roads and continue for one mile.

Use bare as an adjective to show a lack of cover, and as a basic state or situation:

  • He was bare from the waist upwards.
  • The leaves have fallen, and the trees are all bare.
  • They only give the bare minimum of effort.

You’ll most often see this particular confusion creeping up when someone attempts to use the phrase bear in mind. The meaning of this term is to remember something – to hold it in mind – and therefore bear is the correct homophone to use.

The same goes for bear with me – a request that someone hold on for a short time. Confusing this one with bare with me could have unintended consequences!

 

Affect/Effect

This is a tricky one. Granted, the words affect and effect aren’t exactly homophones (the pronunciation differs slightly), but even well-educated adults can get confused over which of these words to select.

Some of the confusion comes from that fact that both words can be either a noun or a verb. However, in modern usage affect is nearly always a verb, and effect is used as a noun.

Affect is a verb to show something has made a change. That includes emotions and inside the body:

  • The dampness began to affect my health.
  • She was affected by the tragedy.

Effect as a noun means a change as a result of an action. Also as a description of lighting, sound, and scenery used in a play or film, and finally as someone’s personal belongings:

  • The new medicine had negative side effects.
  • This play has amazing sound effects.
  • Your insurance will cover all your personal effects.

Effect can also be used as a verb, but this is an uncommon usage today:

  • The president effected many policy changes.

In most cases, the confusion arises when trying to explain how something changed something else. The easiest way to remember the difference is that one thing may affect another, and what happens as a result is the effect it has had.

 

Capital/Capitol

Capital has several meanings. As a noun it can refer to a city with a seat of government, or valuable assets:

  • Brian visited Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
  • The return rates on invested capital are very high.

As an adjective, capital is an uppercase letter, and an offense that links to the death penalty:

  • The first letter of a proper noun is always a capital, for example, America.
  • This crime is a capital offense.

Capitol means the building where a government’s legislative branch (the law makers) meets:

  • Laura visited the shop in the basement of the capitol after watching a bill become law.
  • The capitol has undergone renovations this year.

The word capitol is most commonly linked to the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

 

Complement/Compliment

Complement is often used to describe things that go well together. It can also be used to suggest a group is full or well-stocked:

  • Daniel’s purple raincoat is a perfect complement to his gold boots.
  • We have a full complement of staff.

A compliment is an expression of praise:

  • Sarah’s cranberry sauce is a perfect complement to our roast turkey.

Where you’ll usually see people trip up with this one is the distinction when describing something as either complementary or complimentary in terms of it being free.

When something is given free of charge, it’s given with compliments. Think of it as something nice being offered, and the correct choice should be obvious.

So a complimentary bottle of wine is being provided free of charge.

A complementary bottle of wine goes well with whatever else it’s being served with.

 

Lay/Lie

Okay, this one is also something of an outlier as it isn’t strictly a homophone – but it is a common source of head-scratching.

To lay (and past tense laid) is a verb and means to set down or to place an object:

  • She laid the baby down gently.
  • I lay out my clothes, ready for the interview tomorrow.
  • Did you know flamingos only lay one egg each season?

To lie as a verb means to recline or stay in one place:

  • She’s gone upstairs to lie down for a nap.
  • The castle lies in ruins.

You’d think that’s easy enough, right? Well, English is well known for being complicated, and the past tense of lie is also lay. So it is also accurate to say:

  • William lay face down on the grass.
  • Her book lay open on the table.

Lie can also be a noun, and means a deliberate falsehood:

  • Why would he tell a lie about his visit to Aunt Ellie?

Getting this one right is primarily a question of tense, and subject. Try to remember that, in most cases, starting with the infinitive to lay means that you’re describing an object that is being set down. It isn’t taking the action for itself.

Though even when it seems to be clear, it’s still easy to find yourself second-guessing your words every time someone in your story takes a break to lie down.

 

Principle/Principal

Use principle as a noun meaning a basic or fundamental truth or law:

  • He is known as a man of principles.
  • Fairness is a basic principle of justice.

Principal is a noun meaning the head of a school or organization. It can also mean a sum of money:

  • The principal is a well-respected member of the community.
  • All of the winners were paid from the interest without having to touch the principal.

So if you wanted to explain what the strongest reason for something is, that would be the principle reason. When you get it wrong, you might say that a man of many principals has more than few too many staff at his school.

These are just six common examples of word confusion – there are many more out there, of course! Which homophones catch you out the most? Are there any you see on a regular basis that you’d like to add to the list? Share them all in the comments below!

 

Join the Discussion on “6 Commonly Confused Homophones”

  1. Counsel/council—once, long ago, I put “General Council” as our corporate lawyer’s title on the website. That got fixed promptly and I’ve not forgotten since.

    I’m seriously considering campaigning for a single spelling for there/their/they’re (maybe the shortened ther) since the way most folks write I end up guessing the meaning from context anyway.

  2. blank Gail Ingis says:

    Interesting. Yikes. I’m having trouble with Grammarly with the word VAIN. (He is vain.)They only have VEIN in their dictionary, and won’t let me add it to my Grammarly dictionary, and what about weather VANE.

  3. blank Jennifer says:

    You used the rule and example:

    Lie can also be a noun, and means a deliberate falsehood:
    I wonder why he lied about his visit to Aunt Ellie. —

    In this instance, you used “lied” as a verb, not a noun. You can tell a “lie” (noun). And you can “lie” (verb). So it’s even more confusing!

    1. blank AutoCrit says:

      Right indeed, Jennifer! Haha! We could say that was intentional, and you’re the eagle-eyed winner… but that would probably be a lie. 😀

  4. blank Maureen Ross says:

    Good reminder, forever checking my checking on these types of words. As I’m here, I’ll ask a question, I had reason to check out
    ProWritingAid, don’t worry I’m still AutoCrit happy, however, I found the Transitions report interesting and wondered why AC did not have same or similar. Forgive the long sentence!

    1. blank AutoCrit says:

      No problem at all, Maureen. We’ll get that checked out behind the scenes and see what the reason is.

  5. Some tips for remembering: CAPITOL with an “O” reminds me of the round dome in the Capitol building. PRINCIPAL ends in PAL, as in, “My PRINCIPAL is my PAL.

    1. blank AutoCrit says:

      Good one, Michael!

  6. blank Trudy says:

    My pet peeve is lightning/lightening – like effect/affect, they’re not pronounced the same, but I often see lightning written as lightening. Also vial/vile. Two words with very different meanings, I’ve seen them confused for each other.

    They’re/their/there is also a good one, as is its/it’s. (That last one I got wrong in an English test once as a kid, and since then I *always* mentally check if I’m writing “it is” or “belonging to it”.

  7. blank Chris says:

    You say that ‘Effect can also be used as a verb, but this is an uncommon usage today:’

    Maybe that’s the case in the US, but where English originated (the clue’s in the name) it’s not uncommon to use it as a verb.

  8. blank Beverley Hanna says:

    Not exactly homonyms, but my personal peeve is honing and homing. Honing refers to sharpening or improving, as in honing a knife edge or honing one’s skills at writing. Homing refers to direction: homing in on an object, or homing pigeons, who home in on a location. ‘Way too many online marketers get this wrong. I wonder if they know how many sales they lose because of poor grammar and spelling.

    1. blank AutoCrit says:

      That’s a good one, Beverley. They tend to get crossed quite often with “hone in” and “home in,” which are both becoming begrudgingly recognized as meaning the same thing, as far as we know.

  9. blank Richard says:

    “So it is also accurate to say:

    William decided to lay face down on the grass.”

    No, that’s wrong. We don’t use the past tense in an infinitive. “to lie” is correct. “to lay his face” would also be correct.

    1. blank AutoCrit says:

      Right on, Richard. Good spot. We’ve nuked the infinitive in the example for correctness, and better clarity. Keep us on our toes!

  10. blank Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Another word confusion, which I have seen in centuries-old texts as well as modern ones is “running the gauntlet”/”running the gantlet”. A gauntlet is an armored glove. It is also (now) is a track or course in a competition/punishment, each side of the course lined with people holding sticks or other weapons with which to strike the runner as he passes. Most dictionaries equate the two words in the running meaning, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “gantlet” as fading into obscurity since the 15th Century. Some dictionaries don’t even list “gantlet.”

    To add to the confusion, to “throw down the gauntlet” is a challenge, the object thrown down being the knight’s armored glove. So one knight could “throw down the gauntlet” and thereby challenge his opponent to “run the gantlet,” which would be a difficult endeavor, since knights of yore were barely able to walk once fully armored.

    In any case, it is not considered incorrect to use “gauntlet” in the place of “gantlet” in referring to the race, but it is considered incorrect to use “gantlet” in place of “gauntlet” if referring to the glove.

  11. blank Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    With regards to “it’s” and “its,” do not rely on word-processing software’s grammar check feature. Among other problems with accurate grammar and English usage, my MS Word insisted that my sentence “The horse lifted its foot” should read “The horse lifted it’s foot.” I don’t know who developed their software, but if they proclaim to be experts, they need to go back to school.

  12. There, their, and they’re. Hear and here. Wind and wind, noun and verb. Tear and tier. Sea and see. So and sew. There are so many.

  13. blank Natasha Minson says:

    The w’s are feeling left out. Which, witch is which? Not sure whether we’ll weather the weather. (Think I got that right). Not homophones but, well and we’ll seem to confuse people too. Or how about too and to or ’bout and bout.

  14. blank W says:

    As a horse lover, my personal pet peeve is rein/reign. Especially when not specifically talking about horses because people don’t understand the origin of the word usage: You have to rein in the king from getting too extravagant during his reign.

    I did read a book once where the character ‘reigned’ her horse around. VERY distracting to read, every single time.

  15. blank geo says:

    Great, grate idea, Joel – let’s continue “dumbing down” the language! Homer rules! Simpson, of course…What were you taught about a taut tort?

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