Autumn is the season of changing leaves, sweaters…and Starbucks pumpkin lattes. As fall draws near, the leaves begin to fall from the trees. Fall and fall are homonyms; they have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings. Another of the seasons—spring—it is also a homonym, from the Greek for “same name.”
- The English prefer to use the term autumn, while Americans prefer the more literal fall.
- You should only capitalize the names of seasons when used as part of a proper name, such as “Winter Olympics.”
Strictly speaking, words that share the same sound but have different meanings are known as homophones. Under that umbrella term are heterographs (words that have the same sound but different meanings and spellings) and homonyms (words that share the same sound and spelling but have different meanings).
To make things more confusing, homonyms are also homographs, or words that share the same spelling but have different meaning. Heteronyms are another type of homograph, sharing the same spelling but differing in pronunciation and meaning.
Heterographs are indistinguishable in spoken conversation but are often confused in writing. Worse, most conventional spellcheckers won’t catch the mistake since the word is technically spelled correctly…it just isn’t the word you meant. Grammarly’s adaptive spell checker, however, catches those errors and more.
Here are some examples of heterographs:
- Your/You’re—The former is a possessive (your pen, your muffin) while the latter is a contraction of “you are.”
- To/Two/Too—“To” is a preposition, “two” is number, and “too” means “also.”
- Their/They’re/There—Three of the most commonly confused homophones, “their” is a possessive, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are,” while “there” means “over yonder.”
- Its/It’s—If you’re not sure which of these use, remember that “it’s” is a contraction of “it is” while “its” is the possessive.
- Principal/Principle—Remember the old mnemonic: your principal is your pal!
- Carat/Caret/Carrot—The first is a unit of measurement (a 10-carat diamond), the second is a teepee-shaped punctuation mark, and the third is a tasty orange vegetable.
- Accept/Except—You always accept gifts, except from your arch-nemesis.
- Affect/Effect—Mignon Fogarty at Grammar Girl sums up the difference between these two commonly confused words: “Affect is usually a verb, while effect is usually a noun.” She outlines the finer points of the two words here.
Homographs can be challenging when reading an unfamiliar text aloud. Only context clues will clarify which pronunciation to use.
Here are some examples:
- Bass/Bass—A bass can be either a fish (rhymes with “grass”) or an instrument (rhymes with “base”)
- Bow/Bow—A bow (rhymes with “how”) is the front of a ship, while a bow (rhymes with “doe”) is a tied ribbon.
- Row/Row—You row a boat (rhymes with “owe”), but in England you have a row (rhymes with “now”), or argument.
- Minute/Minute—A minute (sixty seconds) can feel minute (very, very small)
- Moped/Moped—Laura moped (rhymes with “hoped”) for weeks after she wrecked her moped (“mow-ped”).
Homonyms are the trickiest of the bunch. True homonyms (literally “same name”) have both the same spelling and pronunciation.
Here are some examples:
- Bat/Bat—One’s a Louisville Slugger and one’s a flying rodent. Confuse them at your own risk.
- Down/Down—One’s a direction, and one’s the fluff from a goose filling your pillows.
- Wave/Wave—One’s the motion of the ocean, and one’s a gesture of greeting.
Which of these commonly confused words trip you up? Leave a comment below!