The Dreaded Homophone List
Homonyms are words that sound the same but mean different things (and are usually spelled differently). They are the bane of writers, ESPECIALLY in the modern era, because spellcheck often doesn't catch them. So if you aren't sure which one is which, or just make a mistake ... your first line of defense isn't going to help. (Also, ironically, I misspelled "homonym" and had to go back and fix it.)
Anyway! Here is a list of common homonym fails. If you aren't sure of something, you can check it here.
A lot / allot. "A lot" means "many." To allot is to assign as a share or portion
Accept / except. To accept something is to receive it, and often to receive it with approval. You accept someone's apology, for example. To except something is to exclude it. "I like all chocolate except for ones with citrus flavor like those chocolate oranges." Remembering that "ex" means not or out may help you remember which is which.
Allude / elude. Allude means to suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at. "He alluded to her past indiscretions." Elude means to evade or escape from, or to fail to grasp something. "The thief could not elude the great Sherlock Holmes for long." This one you can actually remember phonetically; allude is pronounced "uh-lood" (short "a" sound) and elude is pronounced "ee-lood" or "eh-lood" (long or short "e" sound). See also "elusive" vs. "illusive" below.
Altar / alter. An altar is a religious table or pedestal around which worship is centered. In most Christian churches, the altar is the big piece of furniture at the front of the sanctuary. When a wedding happens in a church, it happens in front of the altar, so sometimes "going to the altar" with someone is slang for marrying them. If you have a fantasy setting and someone or something is getting sacrificed, they are being sacrificed on an altar. To alter something is to change it or make a difference. You alter garments to fit better, or alter a ship's course. Superman is Clark Kent's alter ego, his different self.
Averse / adverse. Being averse to something is having an aversion to it; opposing it; wanting to avoid it; objecting. Adverse describes circumstance rather than preference–the snowy road conditions don’t care if you can drive or not but they sure make it difficult.
Bare / bear. Bare means uncovered or unclothed or empty. Naked people bare their bodies; stores with nothing in stock have bare shelves. Bear has many meanings. A bear is an animal. To bear can also mean to carry something, as in "the right to bear arms" which doesn't mean Americans have the right to sleeveless shirts, but rather the right to carry weapons. To bear something can also mean to endure it, as in "he could hardly bear to think about ____" or "how are you bearing up under the stress?" Basically, English has a lot of different meanings for "bear," but only one meaning for "bare." So if you don't mean "uncovered or empty," you mean bear.
Bated / baited. Bated means in great suspense; very anxiously or excitedly. Baited is to deliberately annoy or taunt someone, or prepare a trap. If you are talking about a military ambush, or putting a worm on a hook while fishing, you mean baited. If you're describing someone who can barely sit still because of anticipation, you mean bated. Especially if you're using the phrase "bated breath."
Bath / bathe. Bath is a noun, bathe is a verb. A bath is what you bathe in. A bath is the tub filled with water. "Bath" rhymes with "path" and "math." "Bathe" is pronounced like "baythe," it has the same vowel as "mail."
Bollocks / bullock. A bullock is a young bull. Bollocks are UK slang for testes.
Brake / break. A brake is the thing on a vehicle that slows it down, or the act of using something mechanical to slow your speed. A break is a gap or a rest period. To break something is to separate something into parts with violence or suddenness. Or, alternatively, to violate, transgress, or force an entry to (break a law, break a barrier). Or, alternatively, to break means to destroy or make submissive. Or you can tell someone an unexpected/unwanted thing by breaking the news to them.
Bread / bred. Bread is the thing you make sandwiches with. Bred is the past tense of breed. Border collies have been bred to herd animals, they haven't been bread anything.
Breath / breathe. Breath is a noun, breathe is a verb. A breath is the air in your lungs, or the air you have just expelled from your lungs. The vowel sound in "breath" is the same sound in "bread." "Breathe," on the other hand, rhymes with "teethe" and has the same vowel as "me." Breathe becomes breathing. If you are breathing, you are taking air in and out. Breathing is the act of doing it; a breath is the stuff that you are doing it with.
Cloth / clothe. Cloth is a noun, clothe is a verb. Cloth is another word for fabric (and where the word "clothing" comes from, as clothing is made from cloth). To clothe someone means to put clothing on them. I am clothed in a dress made out of cotton cloth. "Cloth" rhymes with "Hoth" and "clothe" rhymes with "loathe".
Compliment / complement. A compliment means to politely praise someone. Something that goes perfectly with something else complements it. "You look wonderful!" is a compliment. "That hat matches your shoes perfectly!" describes how two accessories complement one another and is ALSO a compliment.
Conscience / conscious. Your conscience (kon-shehns) is your sense of right and wrong, your internal measuring stick which you use to judge your actions. If you are conscious (kon-shuhs), you are awake or alert or aware of something. If you know what your ethical code would think of your actions, you are conscious of your conscience.
Co-op / Coop / Coup / Coupe. A co-op (short for cooperative) is an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services. A coop is a small cage or building to keep poultry in; being "cooped up" is when you're feeling antsy because you haven't been out in a while. A coup is when the government is violently overthrown, or there is another abrupt (and often violent) change resulting in someone getting a lot more power. A coupe is a two-door car (or, if you're writing a Regency story, a four-wheeled closed horse-drawn carriage for two persons inside with an outside seat for the driver in front, but in that case you should definitely spell it coupé).
Cue / Queue. A cue is a hint, or stage directions in a play, or something that helps you figure out timing. It's also the name of the stick used to play pool or billiards or shuffleboard. A queue is a line you wait in, or when you have your hair in a low ponytail or single braid down your back.
Defiantly / definitely. Defiantly is doing something with open resistance or bold disobedience. Definitely means without doubt or clearly.
Defuse / diffuse. To defuse is to remove the fuse from a mine or bomb, whether literally or figuratively. "They defused the tension in the room with a quiet joke." It can only be used as a verb. Diffuse means spread out or scattered, and can be either an adjective ("There was a diffuse scent of perfume wafting through the room") or a verb ("he put on a filter to diffuse the light").
Dibs / dips. Dibs are a claim or right. A dip is a sauce to dip things into. You dip something by letting it drop briefly downward (possibly into something).
Discreet / discrete. Discreet is a form of discretion, it describes someone who is careful and inconspicuous. Discrete describes things that are individually separated.
Disillusion / Dissolution. Disillusion is to take away an illusion. Dissolution comes from the same root as dissolve, and means dissolving a whole into its component parts. If you're talking about the legal ending of a marriage, you mean dissolution (although the spouses might have become disillusioned about one another).
Elusive / illusive / allusive. Elusive refers to something that is hard to pin down, that keeps getting away or evading or hiding. Illusive refers to something that is an illusion, and it's a very rare word. Allusive means working by suggestion rather than explicit mention, and again is very rare (the cognate 'allusion' is much more common). Elusive is the one you probably meant, unless you're talking about art (in which case you might mean illusive) or having a literary discussion (in which you probably mean allusive).
Flaunt / flout. To flout the rules is to ignore them. Flaunting something is showing it off.
Gauge / gouge. When used as a noun, gauge is the thickness, size, or capacity of something, or a device used for measuring. When used as a verb, it means estimating the amount or volume of something. It's pronounced "gayj." Gouge, on the other hand, means to make a hole or groove, often with a sharp object. In slang use, it means to swindle or overcharge someone. Gouge is pronounced "gowje."
Hoard / horde. A hoard is a carefully-guarded collection of things, like a dragon's hoard, or the action of building such a collection. A horde is a large crowd, often unorganized, often moving or in action. The word originated as a description of Eurasian nomadic bands, such as the Mongols but can now refer to anything from tourists to reporters to, well, any large group of people.
Interment / internment / interning. Interment is a fancy word for burial. Internment refers to being held prisoner, often for political reasons. Interning is when you work for a company (sometimes, in the US, without pay) as a training thing for a set term.
Lead / led. Lead (noun) is pronounced "led" and means the soft heavy metal whose symbol on the periodic table is Pb. "To lead" (pronounced "leed") is to guide on a way especially by going in advance or to go through or to be first in. The past tense of lead is led. An LED is a light emitting diode.
Lightning / lightening. Lightning is the counterpart of thunder, “a naturally occurring electrostatic discharge during which two electrically charged regions in the atmosphere or ground temporarily equalize themselves.” Lightening is when something gets lighter.
Lose / loose. You probably mean lose. "I lost her in the crowd." "I'm losing my mind." "You can win the battle but still lose the war." Loose, on the other hand, means untied/unbound/unfastened. A screw that is almost coming out is loose. When you rescue someone and you undo their manacles, you are loosing them.
Manner / manor. Your manner is the way you act. It can also mean the characteristic or customary way of doing, making, or saying things in a region or era. A manor is the house or hall of an estate.
Marshal / marital / martial. A marshal is a person in charge in certain specific contexts. The fire marshal is in charge of the fire department, a field marshal is an officer of high military rank. To marshal something is to place it in proper order, or to bring it together in an effective way. Martial is an adjective used to describe military or war things: a court-martial, for instance, is a military court. It comes from the same root, but the difference is that a marshal is a person's rank or title (a noun!) and martial is a description (an adjective!). To confuse things, a person can be described as "martial" (meaning they are very much a warrior or soldier). A marshal can be martial! Marital, on the other hand, is COMPLETELY different. It's an adjective, too, but it relates to marriage: the marital bed, for instance, is a married couples' bed. The wedding vows are marital vows. You can remember the difference by looking for the "i." In "marriage" the i comes right after the r, just like it does in "marital."
Mediate / meditate. To mediate is to intercede or work as a neutral negotiator helping two sides reach an agreement. (The root of mediate is the same root as "middle.") To meditate is to engage in contemplation or reflection, often as a spiritual or mental discipline.
Palette / pallet / palate. A palette is a range of colors or the board an artist uses to hold paints on. A pallet is either a crude bed, like a straw-filled mattress on bare ground, or a platform for moving things (a pallet of supplies). A palate is the roof of your mouth, or the taste of something.
Peers / pears / pairs. A pear is a fruit; something can go "pear-shaped" if it is all going wrong. Your peer is your equal, someone from your own social rank; a peer of the realm is a nobleman. Pair means two.
Per say / per se. Per se means in itself, or intrinsically. For example: "This candidate is not a pacifist per se, but he is in favor of peaceful solutions when practicable." It comes from Latin. "Per say" is simply wrong, used when you've heard it said but never seen it written.
Perennial / perineal. Perennial means something that lasts all year round or comes back every year, like some flowers, or your favorite holiday trappings. The perineum is the space between the anus and scrotum in the male and between the anus and the vulva in the female, and "perineal" is the adjective referring to that area, for example unsafe kinky sex might result in a perineal injury.
Phased / fazed. A phase is a particular stage in a process or cycle. Phased, therefore, refers to a change that happens in stages, for example, a phased construction plan. If you are getting rid of something in stages you might phase it out. Or, if you're talking science fiction, you might be talking about the physical weapon of a phaser, in which case to be phased is to be shot by a phaser. To faze is to daunt or disconcert. If you're talking about someone's emotional reaction, you mean faze, eg. "Nothing fazed her."
Poring / pouring. Poring is "be absorbed in the reading or study of." Pouring is (especially of a liquid) to flow rapidly in a steady stream. You pore over a text, you don't pour over it (unless you are dribbling a liquid on the book for a magic ritual or something like that).
Property / propriety. Property is something you own. Propriety means how proper you are. Like, picture a Victorian lady who's fulfilling all the social rules, she is acting with propriety.
Provenance / providence. Provenance means origin or source, as in the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art. Providence is divine guidance or care. Alternatively, providence can mean being frugal and saving for the future. Providence is also the name of a city in Rhode Island and a major US healthcare network.
Rogue / rouge. Rogue means scoundrel, villain, defiantly independent (think "Rogue Squadron"). Rouge is another word for makeup blush, it's pronounced "roozh" because it comes from the French word for red (think "Moulin Rouge").
Recon / reckon. Recon is short for reconnaisence, the scouting run before an attack. To reckon is to calculate or estimate, or to have an opinion.
Sew / sow. To sew is to use needle and thread to attach two pieces of cloth together. To sow is to plant. You do not "sew [chaos/destruction/suspicion/etc.]," you "sow [chaos/destruction/suspicion/etc.]" because it's a contraction of a longer metaphor: "sow the seeds of [chaos/destruction/suspicion/etc.]." Alternately, a sow is a mother pig. Confusingly, unless you are talking about pigs, sew and sow are both pronounced the same (and both pronounced like the conjunction "so"). When you are talking about a mother pig, "sow" is pronounced like it looks, so that it rhymes with "ow" and "how."
Sphincter / Cincture. A sphincter is "A ringlike muscle that normally maintains constriction of a body passage or orifice and that relaxes as required by normal physiological functioning." Like the one in your ass. A cincture is the rope or band of cloth used as a belt in some Christian liturgical vestments.
Stake / steak. A stake can be a pointed piece of wood or other material driven or to be driven into the ground as a marker or support or method of execution (being "burned at the stake"). Or a stake can be something you are gambling about or with. A high stakes poker game is one where people are betting a lot of money. A steak is a cut of meat.
Straight / strait. Straight is the one you probably want. It means direct, a line that does not bend, heterosexual, a continuous sequence of five cards in a poker hand, and many other things--it has a lot of meanings both literal and colloquial. Strait has two possible meanings: a narrow passage of water connecting two seas or two large areas of water, or something that is narrow, cramped, difficult. The only metaphorical use is "dire straits." If you do not mean a geographical feature, or are not talking about a dire situation, you mean straight.
Taut / taught. taut refers to something such as a rope being pulled tight, tensile pressure pulling. taught is the past tense of teach, and as the more common word often has its weird spelling transferred over.
Tenant / tenet. A tenant is one who rents or leases a dwelling from a landlord. A tenet is a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true, often a part of a religious theology or a philosophical or moral code.
Their / there / they're. Their is the possessive form of "they," as in "their book" or "their one true love." There is a place. They're is the contraction of "They are."
To / too / two. To is a direction--you might go to the zoo, for example, or to market. Too means also: "I want some, too!" Two is the number 2.
Undo / undue. Undo means to open or loose by releasing a fastening, or to reverse or disturb something. Undo is the present tense, undone is the past tense. Undue means something is excessive. Undue violence is more violence than necessary. If there is an act of undue violence, a sci-fi character might travel back in time to undo the wrong.
Viral / virile. Viral means it has to do with viruses, or spreading rapidly and organically. Things on the internet that spread rapidly go viral. Virile means having strength, energy, and a strong sex drive (used almost exclusively to describe men).
Viscous / vicious. Viscous is a description of stuff that is stiff but flows, like syrup or lava. ("VIS-kas") Vicious means cruel or violent in an immoral way. ("VISH-as")
Volition / violation. This one is a bad one to get mixed up. Volition is your will, and more specifically your exercise of that will. Volition is the ability to choose and make it stick. If you do something of your own volition, you are not being coerced in any way. Violation is the opposite. Violation is breaking the rules, violation is a deliberate harming of another. It's a common euphemism for rape. If you have been violated, it was against your volition. So please, please do not get these two words mixed up.
Waist / waste. Your waist is the point in your torso where you naturally bend, and roughly where the top edge of your pants or skirt sits. To waste something is to damage or destroy it, especially through being careless. As a noun, waste is what you call a barren region, or the byproducts of manufacture that just get discarded.
Wanton / wonton. Wanton means being sexy, without restraint, seductive, obsessed with sex. A wonton is a Chinese dumpling.
Wary / weary. To be wary is to be cautious. To be weary is to be tired.
Weather / whether / wether. Weather is things like clouds and rain and sun and snow. Whether indicates that something is conditional, such as "whether or not." A wether is a castrated male sheep or goat.
Wretched / retched. Wretched describes something that is poor quality or uniformly bad. Retched is the past tense form of the verb to retch, which means to vomit.
Along a similar vein, here are some phrases that commonly get misspelled because a word or two gets misheard:
It's not "could of" it's "Could have" (also "should have" and "would have") Can be abbreviated "Could've"
It's not "all intensive purposes" it's "all intents and purposes"
It's not "anti-room" it's "anteroom" (meaning, an outer room that opens into another, often used as a waiting room--literally, it means the "before-room").
It's not "make due" it's "make do", because you are "making [something] do [well enough to serve your purpose]"
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