Do you know your ‘bear’ from your ‘bare’? How about your ‘cereal’ from your ‘serial’? If you’re constantly getting confused by English words that look or sound the same, this post will set you straight. Discover how to spot the difference and perfect your English sentences in no time!
Your first step to understanding these tricky words is to learn a bit more about them. Identical-sounding words can belong to more than one group, and knowing which group to put them in can make them easier to learn. The overall term for these kinds of words is ‘homonyms’ but we can split them into two categories: homophones and homographs.
If you’re already scratching your head in confusion right now, don’t panic! Even the most advanced learners sometimes get stuck on similar-sounding words. Keep reading to discover how to use some of the most common homophones and homographs in English, and start communicating like a pro.
homo = same
phone = sound
A homophone is a word that is pronounced exactly the same as another word but has a different spelling, like meat (n) and meet (v).
Homophones are easy to spot when they’re written down because they actually look different, so try and make sure you learn the correct spelling of each word and not just their meaning.
It’s useful to dedicate a section of your vocabulary notebook just to homophones, so you can write them down in their pairs when you spot them. A little drawing to help you remember them is really helpful, too!
Task 1: Think about what pictures you would draw to help you remember the words below
1. peace (noun) – when there is no war or fighting
‘The two countries signed a peace treaty agreeing not to attack each other.’
piece (noun) – a small part of a whole item
‘I’d like a piece of chocolate cake with whipped cream.’
2. hour (noun) – sixty minutes
‘I have to meet my friend for coffee in an hour’
our (pronoun) – belonging to us
‘Can you ask the porter to take our bags upstairs?’
3. bare (adjective) – naked, without clothes
‘He stripped bare to take a shower.’
bear (noun) – a large furry predator that often lives in the woods
‘The bear roared at the frightened campers.’
4. flour (noun) – wheat that’s been ground into a powder
‘Have we got flour, sugar, eggs and butter in the cupboard? I’m going to bake a cake.’
flower (noun) – the brightly coloured part of a plant which produces seeds or fruit
‘My daughter bought me a beautiful bunch of flowers for my birthday.’
5. cereal (noun) – a breakfast food made of grains that’s usually eaten with milk
‘His favourite cereal is Corn Flakes.’
serial (adjective) – of a crime committed many times by one person in a similar way
‘The serial killer has finally been caught by the police.’
6. ate (verb) - the simple past form of the verb ‘eat’
‘They ate dinner early.’
eight (noun) - the spelling of the number 8
‘I need eight notebooks – one for each of my students.’
7. hear (verb) – to be aware of sound
‘Can you hear the birds outside? I love that sound, it’s so peaceful.’
here (adverb) – in this place
‘I’m at home. Why don’t you meet me here?’
8. by (preposition) – next to something or someone
‘She’s going to that new coffee shop by the park.’
buy (verb) – to pay money and get something in exchange for it
‘She’s going to the supermarket to buy cereal.’
9. their (pronoun) - belonging to them
‘They’ve left their coats in the classroom.’
there (adverb) – in that place
‘Can you pass me the TV remote? It’s over there.’
they’re (contraction) – the contracted form of ‘they are’
‘They’re coming with us to the cinema tonight.’
10. ferry (noun) – a large boat that transports passengers across the sea from one place to another
‘If we take the ferry to France, it’ll be cheaper than going by plane.’
fairy (noun) – a tiny, magical creature with wings that’s often a character in children’s books ‘Grandma, tell me the story about the fairies again.’
homo = same
graph = writing
A homograph is a word that’s spelt and pronounced exactly the same as another word, but has a different meaning, such as ‘He checked the time on his watch’ / ‘You watch TV.’
The best way to spot the difference between them is by looking at the context of the sentence – what is it about? Look at the examples above. What other words in the sentence help you to work out the meaning? Look closely and you’ll see that the key words are ‘time’ and ‘check’ in the first sentence and ‘TV’ in the second. Without the context it’s almost impossible to work out what the true meaning is without the rest of the sentence to help you.
For this reason, make sure you write homographs down in your vocabulary notebook as whole sentences so you can look back and remember what they mean.
Task 2: What are the keywords that help you to work out the meaning in the examples below?
1. date (noun) – a romantic activity planned by a boyfriend/girlfriend
e.g. ‘I’m taking my girlfriend on a dinner date to a fancy restaurant.’
date (noun) – a specific day on the yearly calendar
e.g. ‘Which date is best for the meeting? The 14th or 15th of September?’
2. wave (noun) – an area of moving water above the surface of a sea, river or lake
e.g. ‘He says the waves are too dangerous to go swimming.’
wave (verb) – a hand gesture which means hello or goodbye
e.g. ‘She waved at her brother through the window.’
3. tie (noun) – a smart accessory you wear around your neck
e.g. ‘All the children have to wear uniforms to school – grey trousers, a white shirt and a tie.’
tie (verb) – to use a string or a rope to attach something or someone to something else, or to make a knot or a bow.
e.g. ‘He stopped running to tie his shoelaces because they’d come undone.’
4. trip (noun) – an excursion to another country or place. e.g. ‘I’m taking a trip to Italy next weekend.’
trip (verb) – to catch your foot on something as you’re moving and fall over
e.g. ‘She fell and hurt her knee when she tripped over the cat.’
5. nail (noun) – the hard coverings on the end of your fingers and toes
e.g. ‘You really should stop biting your nails – it’s an awful habit.’
nail (noun) – a thin, sharp piece of metal with a flat head that’s used with a hammer to attach things to wood
e.g. ‘They used a hammer and some nails to fix the broken desk.’
6. park (noun) – a green area in a city where children often play
e.g. ‘It’s sunny today – let’s have a picnic in the park.’
park (verb) – to move your car into a particular place and leave it there
e.g. ‘It’s so expensive to park in the city centre, you should get the bus.’
7. letter (noun) – a handwritten or printed message to another person
e.g. ‘She wrote a letter to her mother every week after she moved away.’
letter (noun) – one of the symbols which forms the alphabet of a language
e.g. ‘There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.’
8. match (noun) – a wooden stick with a flammable tip that ignites when you strike it
e.g. ‘Can you pass me the box of matches so I can light some candles?’
match (noun) – a competition between two teams or two or more players
e.g. ‘They went to see the football match between Manchester United and Arsenal.’
9. glasses (noun) – the plural form of glass; a container you can drink from made from glass
e.g. ‘Would you like a glass of orange juice?’
glasses (noun) – prescription eyewear that helps you to see clearly
e.g. ‘He only needs to wear his glasses for reading.’
10. light (noun) – a source of energy that makes it possible to see things
e.g. ‘The light was so bright that it hurt my eyes.’
light (adjective) – weighing very little
e.g. ‘His son was so light that he could pick him up easily.’
If you’re still with us, well done! You’re well on your way to mastering those pesky homonyms. The next time you hear a word in English that looks or sounds the same as one you already know, you’ll know exactly what to do:
Number 1, check the spelling. This will tell you if it’s a homophone or a homograph.
Number 2, think about the whole sentence and use the keywords that help you to work out the meaning. This is especially useful if you’re having a conversation and can’t see what the word looks like.
Number 3, ask! Our Brighter English teachers are here to help, so if you’re not sure about something, get in touch. You can even get a FREE consultation via Zoom so you can see if our classes are right for you. Click here to find out more.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions about our post as well as examples of homonyms in your language. Share your examples with us and our students in the comments below.