Homophones are sets of distinct words with similar or identical pronunciation. Because they sound similar when spoken, many writers fall into the error of using one in place of the other. Even if your meaning comes across, it will still signal carelessness to your reader. We’re going to break down some of the most commonly misplaced homophones and clarify which word should be used in which circumstance.
Possessives vs. Contractions
One of the most frequent points of confusion in English writing is similar sounding possessives and contractions. Particularly, many a writer has carelessly swapped between its and it’s, between your and you’re, or between their and they’re. To set the record straight:
Your, Their, and Its are all possessive pronouns; they indicate ownership.
“Come pick up your things from the stairwell.”
“Their house is ten blocks down the road.”
“The house is leaking from every one of its corners.”
By contrast, you’re, they’re, and it’s are contractions, convenient shortenings of the phrases “you are”, “they are” and “it is”.
“I must leave soon, as it’s getting late.”
“You’re not going to believe who I just saw.”
“They had better leave before they’re put in real danger.”
If you’re not sure which to use in a sentence, try stretching out the word into a non-contracted form; if it still maintains the correctness of the sentence, use the contraction:
“It’s a real shame we couldn’t do this earlier.”
“It is a real shame we couldn’t do this earlier”
In this example, it’s is correct.
“The storm is reaching it’s final phase.”
“The storm is reaching it is final phase.”
Here, it’s doesn’t provide a coherent sentence, so its should be used instead.
Of vs. Have
Sometimes, it may sound right to you to use of in combination with auxiliary verbs like would, should, or could.
“If you had told me before, we could of done something.”
Don’t fall into this trap, however; what you’re actually trying to write is the contraction of could have, would have, or should have.
“If you had told me before, we could’ve done something.”
Affect vs. Effect
These are two more words which are frequently confused. Not helping matters is the fact that both words can be used as either a noun or a verb.
Affect, when used as a verb, means to have an impact or influence on something.
“This situation next door affects all of us.”
It can also mean to feign or put on a particular way of speaking or acting:
“He affects an English accent to sound more cultured.”
Effect, when used as a verb, means to directly cause something to happen.
“My lawyer was able to effect a swift release.”
Affect, when used as a noun, means someone’s manner of speaking and moving.
“She has always had an unusually formal affect.”
(When used in this way, the pronunciation changes, placing the stress on the second syllable: AF-fect rather than af-FECT.)
Effect, when used as a noun, means the direct result of another action.
“Already we’re seeing the effect this policy is having.”
To vs. Too vs. Two
These three identical-sounding particles can be a source of confusion, so let’s lay out the appropriate uses of each one of them:
Two is the word for the numeral 2; nothing more and nothing less.
“I had two eggs for breakfast the other morning.”
To is a little more complicated. It can be used as a preposition to indicate direction or position:
“I need to drive all the way to the city today.”
Or it can be used to form the infinitive, or abstract form of a verb (like the construction to form earlier in this sentence!)
Too is an adverb used to indicate that something is the case in addition to or beyond something else
“He plays the piano, and the saxophone, too.
It can also be used as an adverb to indicate that something is excessive:
“The shade of yellow paint is far too bright.”
Then vs. Than
Then and than can be mixed up both in writing and in everyday speech.
Then is used to help place an event in time, placing it after or concurrent with another event.
“First we go to the theater, then we eat dinner.”
Than is used for comparison, to indicate that one thing exceeds another.
“His land is nearly five times greater than mine.”
Already vs. all ready
Already means that something is happening immediately, possibly sooner than expected.
“The band is already here, and we haven’t finished setting up!”
All ready is just what it seems on the face of it: a statement that something is completely ready.
“Are you all ready to board the flight?”
Following the guidelines above, see if you can spot and correct some of the common homophone-related errors in the sentences below.
“Your going to be late if you keep dawdling.”
“Five years is to much time to spend in one place.”
“When you finish your work, than you can leave.”
“After that last vacation, we were already to stay at home this summer.”
“It’s time too start thinking about other options.”
“We should of invested in a better sofa.”
“I didn’t think that my actions would have this big of an affect.”
“There getting ready to demolish the old store.”