Learning English can be both funny and confusing. The language has various confusing oddities - homophones, homographs, homonyms, and inconsistent spellings are just a few - that make it difficult to learn and easy to misunderstand.

In the previous edition of ‘Vocabulary Matters’ we discussed homonyms - each of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins.

This edition of ‘Vocabulary Matters’ will give you more insights into homophones - words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings as well. The word ‘homophone’ comes from the Greek words ‘homo’, meaning ‘same’, and ‘phone’, meaning ‘voice’.

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The different types of homophones are:

  • Homographs – Words that are similar in spelling, but different in meanings.
    Eg: Wave - I waved my hand; wave - the waves of the sea are strong

  • Homonyms – Words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings (our last edition).
    Eg: cite, sight, and site

  • Heterographs – Words that have different spellings but are pronounced in the same way.
    Eg: Flower, flour

  • Oronyms – Words that have multiple words or phrases but sound similar.
    Eg: Ice cream and I scream

Take a look at the following homophones to get a better understanding. Mind you, these are just the tip of the homonym iceberg!

1. To, Two, Too

To - used in the infinitive form of a verb
Example: “to walk” and also to mean “towards”.

Too - More than is needed or wanted; more than is suitable or enough.
Example: There were too many people for such a small room.

Two – The number 2
Example: We met two days ago.

2. Raise, Rays, Raze, Réis

Raise - To lift something up
Example: Would all those in favour please raise their hands?

Rays - Narrow beams of light, heat, etc. travelling in a straight line from their place of origin
Example: Light rays bend as they pass from air to water.

Raze – to knock something down
Example: The town was razed to the ground in the bombing raid.

Réis – plural of real,the currency of Portugal until 1911; A chief, person with authority
Example: The reis was the secretary-general of the diwan, and in more modern times became the minister for foreign affairs.

3. Allowed, Aloud

Allowed - let (someone) have or do something
Example: Smoking is allowed here.

Aloud - in a loud manner, loudly
Example: The pain made him cry aloud.

4. There, Their, They’re

There - The opposite of ‘here’; also means ‘at that place’.
Example: The auditorium is over there.

Their - Indicates possession (of something) by more than one person; belongs to them
Example: Their stuff has been moved from this room.

They’re - Contraction of “they are” or “they were”
Example: They’re not here, they just left.

5. Altar, Alter

Altar - A type of table used in ceremonies in a Christian church or in other religious buildings
Example: The bride left the groom standing at the altar.

Alter - To change something, usually slightly, or to cause the characteristics of something to change
Example: The plans have been altered.

6. Sax, Sacks, Sacs

Sax - A saxophone.
Example: He plays the sax beautifully.

Sacks - To put in or as if in a sack.
Example: They are then used as coal sacks.

Sacs - Plural form of sac. Sac is a hollow, flexible structure resembling a bag or pouch.
Example: Special sacs developed from the intersegmental septa lodge the developing ova and sperm.

7. Die, Dye

Die - Stop living, to pass out of existence

Dye - A natural or synthetic substance used to add a colour to or change the colour of something.

Example: If you accidentally drank a bottle of fabric dye, you might die.

8. Sell, Cell

Cell - A small room in which a prisoner is locked up, the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism

Sell - To give something to someone else in return for money

Example: If you sell drugs, you will get arrested and end up in a prison cell.

9. Tail, Tale

Tail - A part of an animal's body, sticking out from the base of the back, or something similar in shape or position.
Example: The dog wagged his tail on seeing his master.

Tale - A story, especially one that might be invented or difficult to believe
Example: She concocted a tale about missing the bus to explain her lateness.

10. Bean, Been

Bean - A seed, or the pod containing seeds, of various climbing plants
Example: The beans will only germinate if the temperature is warm enough.

Been - Used to mean "visited" or "travelled"
Example: I have never been to Africa.

There is no secret formula to discerning homophones. Context can help you understand the intended meaning behind the usage of a word. Try and understand the different meanings of words and play games with homophones. Strong homophone knowledge can help you write creatively and on a lighter note, make ‘punny jokes’!

Well, we were thinking of ending this article with a joke on vegetables but, we can’t think of one. If you do, ‘lettuce’ know!

Stay tuned to know what’s next in our ‘Vocabulary Matters’ series and join our Facebook community Because Learning Matters to get your weekly vocabulary dose!