Appendix C: Homonyms and Other Problem Words

English is full of homonyms and different types of homonyms at that. The two types addressed here are homophones and homographs.

A homophone is a word that has the same pronunciation as another word, but is spelled differently.

A homograph is a word that has the same spelling as another word, but is pronounced differently.

These are particularly tricky. This appendix provides a list of the most common and the most frustrating, along with a few other trouble words.

Each line in the list links to a Merriam-Webster definition for each word, which includes an audio clip that you can listen to to hear the pronunciation of the word. The definitions include examples for how to use each word, so you can see the differences.

accept vs. except: These two words actually have an almost opposite meaning. To accept means to include something, either in meaning or participation or as a statement of fact. On the other hand, if I say that I like all punctuation marks except the exclamation mark, that means the exclamation mark is excluded from the list (not accepted by me at all).

ad vs. add: The word “ad” is short for “advertisement.” The word “add” is used to put two numbers (or anything else) together.

advice vs. advise: These two words are closely related. “Advise” is a verb. When you perform the action of advising, you have provided somebody with advice, the noun form.

affect vs. effect: This one is infamously difficult; see Grammar Girl‘s explanation here.

a lot vs. allot vs. alot: Let’s start with the problem here: “alot” isn’t a word. There is no correct use of “alot.” The word “lot” is complex, with a large number of sometimes disparate meanings. It can refer to a portion of land or a portion of anything, really. When people write that they have “a lot” of something, they mean a large quantity. The verb, “to allot” means to give people something in portions (and often in equal portions).

allusion vs. illusion: An “allusion” is a reference, sometimes subtle or indirect, to something else. An “illusion” is the creation of an appearance that isn’t real, as in a magic trick.

altar vs. alter: An “altar” is a special table or raised structure used for religious ceremonies. The verb “to alter” means to change something.

appraise vs. apprise: The verb, “to appraise” means to determine the value of something. The verb “to apprise” means to inform somebody of something.

assure vs. ensure vs. insure: The Grammar Guru at the University of Nebraska explains this one for us; see the explanation here.

band vs. banned: A “band” is an object that holds a group of items together, such as an elastic band around pencils. It can also refer to a ring, such as a wedding band. “Banned” is the past tense of “to ban,” which means to prohibit.

bare vs. bear: The word “bare” means uncovered, empty, or naked. “Bear” has many meanings, such as a large forest-dwelling mammal with big claws, or it can mean merit or ownership, such as a statement that “bears repeating” or a person who “bears responsibility for an action.”

bases vs. basis: A “basis” is the reason given for an action, policy, or decision. The word “bases” is plural for the noun “base,” which can refer to a station, as in a military base. It can also refer to something that is simple, as in “basic” in a “base-level automobile.”

beat vs. beet: The word “beat” has a number of meanings, but “beet” is very simple; it’s a round, purple/red root vegetable that is popular in eastern European cuisine.

blew vs. blue: “Blue” is the colour of the daytime sky or the ocean, as seen from outer space. The word “blew” is the past tense of the verb “to blow,” which indicates the pushing of air, usually from the mouth or by wind.

buy vs. by vs. bye: See this explanation from Grammarist.

capital vs. capitol: The word “capital” is almost always the word you want here. The word “capitol” has one specific meaning: the physical building where lawmakers meet in the capital city of a state, province, country, or other major jurisdiction. (These tend to be large, old, pretty buildings, often made of stone.)

cell vs. sell: The verb “to sell” means the action of exchanging a possession, either for oneself or on behalf of another, for money. A “cell” is a single unit, often of a larger whole, such as a single human skin cell. “Cell” can also be short for “cellular,” as in a cellular phone or a mobile phone.

cent vs. scent vs. sent: See the explanation from Grammarist here.

cereal vs. serial: The word “serial” refers to something that happens in a series; the word “cereal” refers to food from grains, as in breakfast cereal or cereal oats.

cite vs. sight vs. site: Let’s go to the Grammar Monster for an explanation of this one.

coarse vs. course: The word “coarse” refers to an abrasive texture. The word “course” has many meanings, such as taking a college course for learning or playing in an obstacle course for aerobic fun.

complement vs. compliment: The verb “to compliment” means to say something kind or favourable about another person (or sometimes an object, such as a beautiful house). “Complement” has a number of meanings. The most confusing is when somebody says that one item or person “complements” another, which means they work together well or provide a favourable synergy together. In audio, the pronunciation is the same, so be careful to listen for context.

council vs. counsel and councillor vs. counselor: A “council” is a group of people who gather to form policy of one type or another. A member of such a council is a “councillor.” A person who provides advice, often a therapist or a lawyer, is a counselor. The verb “to counsel” is the action they take when providing advice. That advice is often called “counsel,” as in “if charged with a crime, seek legal counsel.”

crews vs. cruise vs. crus: The verb “to cruise” means to travel, usually leisurely, and is often used to mean a luxurious voyage on a large ship, known as a “cruise ship.” A “crew” is a group of people who work together, often in the trades or performing outdoor labour. The word “crus” has to do with legs as an anatomical part and isn’t commonly used, but the words “Grand Cru” or “Grand Crus” in plural refer to a high quality of French wine.

defer vs. differ: To “defer” is to delay. To “differ” is to disagree.

desert vs. dessert: A “dessert” is a dish served after the main meal; it is usually sweet and the last course served in a meal. As a noun, “desert” is a biome that receives little or no precipitation. As a verb, “to desert” means to abandon.

dew vs. do vs. due: See this explanation from Grammarist.

dissent vs. descent: To “dissent” is to publicly disagree, often with government or another authority. The word “descent” refers to a drop, usually in elevation, as when a airplane begins its landing. “Descent” can also refer to ancestry, as a person is of “French descent” if their grandparents are from France.

dual vs. duel: A “duel” is a fight between two combatants, historically on a point of honour and often to the death. In contemporary speech, it often simply refers to a contest between two people. The word “dual” refers to the number two, as in a “dual engine aircraft,” which would have two engines.

eminent vs. imminent: The word “eminent” describes somebody prestigious or famous, as in an eminent scholar who is foremost in their field. The word “imminent” refers to an event that is about to happen.

enquiry vs. inquiry: These two words are really variants of each other. They can be used interchangeably, but be consistent in your use of one or the other. If quoting somebody else, use the spelling they use.

fair vs. fare: See this explanation from

farther vs. further: “Farther” is a greater physical distance. The verb “to further” means to advance something, as in “he aims to further his cause by recruiting more supporters.” In spoken English, there is not always clarity about which is being used; in some contexts, either word could be acceptable to achieve similar meaning.

faze vs. phase: A “phase” is a stage or step in a larger process, such as in construction or human development, that is connected to other sequential stages or steps. The verb “to faze” means to affect somebody, often in a negative sense, as in to discourage or concern a person. This is frequently used as a person who is “unfazed,” as in “she was unfazed by the dangers ahead.”

for vs. fore vs. four: See this explanation from Grammarist.

forward vs. foreword: “Forward” is a direction that means to move in the direction ahead. A “foreword” is a portion of writing that lands before the main text. For example, when somebody writes a book, another author will sometimes write a “foreword” that is included before the main author’s writing to provide context or interpretation. A foreword could be seen as the words before.

halve vs. have: To “halve” means to cut something in half. The word “have” is a possessive verb.

hear vs. here: To “hear” is a verb that indicates audio reception through the ears. The word “here” indicates the present location.

it’s vs. its: This is a common challenge for many students. See The Oatmeal‘s explanation here (scroll down).

knight vs. night: A “knight” is a medieval warrior clad in armour, riding on horseback. The word “night” refers to the period of time after the sun has set, but before it has risen again the next day.

later vs. latter: “Later” refers to something that occurs in time after the current moment or point of discussion. The word “latter” refers to the last item on a list (and that list often has only two items).

lay vs. lie: Oh, boy. This is a big one. See Merriam-Webster’s own explanation of these words, which they note have caused confusion for centuries.

lead vs. led: The word “led” is the past tense of the verb “to lead,” which means to go before another (as in “leadership”). The words “lead” and “lead” are different and have different pronunciations. Oh, how do we explain this better? Click on the link to “lead” and scroll down to the definition of “lead” where the word means a particular metal (Pb #82 on the periodic table of elements) and listen to the pronunciation there. You’ll hear that the metal “lead” is pronounced the exact same way as “led,” the past tense of the verb “lead.” Consult your instructor for help if needed.

leased vs. least: The verb “to lease” is a form of rental agreement with specific timelines. The word “least” means the lowest amount that can be considered in the conversation, as in “$500 was the least he could accept when selling his bicycle, as it was worth double and he needed the money badly.”

liable vs. libel: The word “libel” is a legal term that refers to written defamation, as when somebody publishes malicious lies about another person or organization. The word “liable” can also have legal significance, but refers to responsibility for an action. It can also refer to a future likelihood, as in “the instructor is liable to know the difference between these two words.”

loan vs. lone: A “loan” is a financial arrangement where one person or organization temporarily gives money to another with an expectation that that money will be returned, usually in a larger sum than originally given. The word “lone” means “one” and is connected to “alone,” as in “the lone samurai now needed to defend the shogun from four intruders, but skill and cunning were on his side; the intruders would be no match in the end.”

loose vs. lose: “Loose” is the opposite of “tight” or sometimes the opposite of “well defined,” as in “because the records are missing, we only have a loose understanding of what happened.” “Lose” is the opposite of “win” or “keep,” as in “don’t lose that parcel; the contents are very valuable.”

may be vs. maybe: The two words “may be” provide a qualified indication that something is possibly true, as in “that may be the situation, but we need confirmation” (from the verb “to be”). The word “maybe” is used to note a similar uncertainty, but it is in an adverb form.

morning vs. mourning: “Morning” is the period of time after the sun rises, but before it reaches its zenith in the sky at high noon. The word “mourning” refers to the experience of grief upon the death of a loved one or some other significant personal loss.

oar vs. or vs. ore: Grammar Monster explains the differences here (and adds “awe” to the mix, too).

overdo vs. overdue: The word “overdue” means that something should have happened previously, but still has not happened, as in “all assignments were due to be submitted by Friday, but mine is now overdue.” The verb “to overdo” means to complete a task beyond the necessary level and to excess. “He wanted to impress on the first date, but was bringing a horse-drawn carriage, a mariachi band, and 144 red roses going to overdo it?”

passed vs. past: The word “passed” is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” If one moves by another person, they have “passed” that person, as in a race: “the fastest horse passed the rest on the home stretch.” The word “past” refers to events that occurred in history before the present.

patience vs. patients: The word “patients” refers to the people treated by doctors and other medical professionals. The word “patience” is the state of waiting without exhibiting frustration. (The word “patients” was derived from the need to wait to see a doctor, which is not a recent phenomenon.)

peace vs. piece: A “piece” is a portion or component of a larger whole. The word “peace” is the opposite of war or disturbance.

plain vs. plane: See this thorough explanation from English Grammar Lessons online.

pole vs. poll: A “pole” is a long object that is straight on its axis and round, as in a pipe or the straw in a drink. A “poll” is a form of survey that is used to estimate how people feel about a topic or what they think about an issue. These words can also be used as verbs, wherein a person “poles” to push their way somewhere, as with a boat across shallow water, or “polls,” which is to ask people questions (used to produce a poll).

precede vs. proceed: The word “precede” denotes events that transpired before the present matter. The word “proceed” means to make progress or advance in a forward direction.

principal vs. principle: A “principal” is a person in a primary or authoritative position, as in the principal of a school or business; it can also mean the main actor(s) in a film or play. “Principal” can also mean an initial investment upon which an investor hopes to gain a return. The word “principle” refers to a belief or value based on some moral or ethical idea(s).

rational vs. rationale: The word “rational” is an adjective that means an action or idea has a clear logical basis. The word “rationale” is a noun that is a reasoning or explanation (as derived through rational thinking).

read vs. red: “Red” is a colour, as of the colour of a ripe raspberry or strawberry. The word “read” has multiple meanings and, in the past tense of “to read,” has the same pronunciation of “red.”

respectfully vs. respectively: The word “respectfully” means that something is in the spirit of fairness, honesty, honour, and sometimes deference. The word “respectively” indicates that something applies to one or more objects, people, or phenomena in the order as stated or sometimes equally.

right vs. write: The word “right” has multiple meanings, such as being a synonym for virtue or being of the side of the body that is the same as the liver and opposite the heart or of the side of a clock with the numbers one, two, three, four, and five. The word “write” means to create markings that can be read by another person, usually with a pen or pencil on paper, but also on wood, stone, glass, or other surfaces and with other instruments.

road vs. rode: A “road” is a cleared trail from one place to another, usually paved, but at least flattened for use by wheeled vehicles. The word “rode” is the past tense of “to ride,” which means to travel by vehicle or by horse (or sometimes other animals, such as a camel or elephant).

role vs. roll: A “roll” is something that can be stored by circling the object around itself, as in a rug that is put in a roll for storage. It can also refer to pastries or buns that are sometimes made by circling the dough around itself before baking. A “roll” can also be a list, especially of people. The term “roll call” refers to checking for attendance of people on a list. This can also be a verb for achieving the same outcome, as in “she rolled the rug up and stood it against the wall.” The word “role” refers to a duty or task, as in “as a lawyer, her role was to provide the best defense possible.”

than vs. then: See Merriam-Webster’s explanation here.

there vs. their vs. they’re: See Merriam-Webster’s explanation here.

to vs. too vs. two: See the BBC’s explanation here.

who’s vs. whose: This is a common error, but it’s actually easily avoided. The words “who is” or “who has” are shown as a contraction in “who’s.” The word “whose” is possessive, showing that somebody else owns something. When in doubt, ask yourself if “who is” or “who has” would work as a substitute. If yes, use “who is” or “who has.” If no, stick with “whose.” Avoid “who’s” in professional writing (as with all contractions).

your vs. you’re: This issue follows the same pattern as with “who’s” and “whose” above. The words “you are” are shown as a contraction in “you’re.” The word “your” is possessive, showing that somebody else owns something. When in doubt, ask yourself if “you are” would work as a substitute. If yes, use “you are.” If no, stick with “your.”

Be warned: this list is not exhaustive! There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of homonyms in English. You’ll find additional lists of homonyms online, such as this one:

Other problem words

among vs. between: Objects that can be compared separately and in parallel are usually discussed using “between.” For example, “I was choosing between travelling to Italy, Japan, and Egypt.” Only one of those will be chosen. If something is not so easily distinguished, the word “among” may be better. Here’s an example: “I was choosing from among a large number of travel destinations.” In that sentence the destinations aren’t clearly separated for comparison.

amount vs. number: The word “number” is used for a noun that can be counted. The word “amount” is used when a noun must be measured. For example, “we have a number of options, but only a set amount of time to choose.” The options can be counted, but time must be measured.

few vs. little: The word “few” means small in number, while “little” means small in size.

good vs. well: “Good” is usually an adjective, as in I’m reading a “good book.” The word “well” is usually an adverb. If one wants to say that they are in a positive mood, they might say they are “doing well.” If a person says that they are “doing good,” that would mean they were performing acts of goodness, such as donating to charity or helping the needy. It wouldn’t speak to their mood, but rather their actions connected to good deeds.

I vs. me: These pronouns both refer to the self. “I” is used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence, as in “I love grammar and punctuation.” The word “me” is used when the pronoun is the object in the sentence, as in “That ice cream was for William and me.” The most common error is to write “That ice cream was for William and I.” If you remove “William and” from the sentence, you should now hear that “That ice cream was for I” sounds wrong (because it is). That’s the easiest test for which to use when.

less vs. fewer: The word “fewer” is used when the object can be counted, such as “we have fewer customers this time of year” because we can count the customers. The word “less” is used when the object cannot be counted, as in “there is less water in the lake this year” because the water cannot be counted; it would need to be measured.

like vs. such as: The word “like” is a comparison between two objects that are not the same, as in “oranges are like lemons” because they are similar (but not the same). The words “such as” provide examples, as in “we have several citrus fruits to choose from, such as lemons, oranges, and limes.” If “such as” is swapped for “like” in that last sentence, that means they do not have any lemons, oranges, or limes, but other citrus fruits that are similar.

many vs. much: The word “many” is used for countable nouns; the word “much” is used for nouns that must be measured to determine their quantity. For example, “we have many musicians, but not much noise.”

which vs. that: See Grammar Girl‘s explanation here.

who vs. whom: See Grammar Girl‘s explanation here.

Words to avoid

“According to me”: Everything you write is according to you unless you specify otherwise. That’s what citations and attributions are for. If you’re drawing on someone else’s ideas, data, images, text, or other original content, you tell the reader that and cite your source. If you don’t do that, everything you’ve written in the sentence is according to you and only according to you. In short, never write that phrase again.

Besides: While this is actually a fine word, it is misused 99% of the time that I see it in writing. Trust me: there’s a 99% chance you’re in the 99% of students misusing it. If you want to take the time to see if you’re using it correctly, go ahead, but you’ll quickly realize that it isn’t a word you need very often if you are, in fact, using it correctly. The correct usage is when you’ve indicated something true and then want to indicate a special type of exception.

However, here’s an example of how to correctly use the word:

“Jimmy called me to come patch his flat tire, but I was in a rush and he had already called a tow truck; besides, he had a spare tire in the back that he knew how to put on his car. He was being lazy; that’s all there was to the matter.”

So, you’ve been warned: use this word at your own risk because you’re probably misusing it.

Etcetera (etc.): This word tells the reader that you’ve decided not to tell them information. If there is something important, include the information. If not, don’t include it. Using “etc.” asks the reader to guess what you’ve left out.

Got: This word is almost never needed. Usually people write, “I’ve got a problem.” However, in that instance, you can remove “got” and simply write, “I have a problem.” The word “got” is superfluous.

Just: This word is almost never needed in a sentence (unless you’re using it to mean “justice”). If you omit the word from almost any sentence, the meaning will be exactly the same. It’s sometimes called a “softening” word, which means it’s used to reduce the impact of the following word or phrase or the whole sentence. But, why would you want to do that?

Like: This is another word that is actually fine to use, provided you use it correctly. Most of the time, students use “like” when they mean “such as.” Students almost never actually mean the true meaning of the word “like.” You can more or less stop using it because not using it will more likely improve your writing than hurt it in any way.

exception: (verb) show appreciation, but even then

irregardless: This isn’t a real word. It is improper usage. Use “regardless” or “irrespective,” which are likely the intended words in any event.

Nowadays: Everything you write is understood to be in the context of the present unless you specify otherwise, so you don’t need to use it. Moreover, the word is also cliché and invites more clichés. People who begin a sentence or paragraph (or, gasp, a document) with “nowadays” almost immediately jump into a cliché or a stereotype. For example, if you’re tempted to write, “nowadays, technology is advancing business and communications development at an unprecedented rate,” you might quickly realize that the statement would have been true every single day for the past 100+ years. People used to talk that way about “global communication” when the telegraph was invented. The word “nowadays” actually creates an error because it creates a false pretext.

Stuff: This word lacks specificity. It means an unspecified physically real noun. Given that, why not provide a specific noun? Instead of writing that you “picked up ‘stuff’ at the grocery store,” why not write that you “picked up food, batteries, and cleaning supplies”? Now the reader will clearly and specifically understand what you mean.

Exception: (verb) to stuff a turkey

Thing(s): Grab a pad of paper and a pen and write down a definition for this word. I challenge you. The rest of this paragraph will wait while you try. While you think about the word and realize that you can’t create a clear working definition, ask yourself, if that’s the case, “What does this word mean if I can’t define it?” Ah ha! This word has almost no meaning. It is a placeholder for meaning. We use it to show that we intend meaning, but haven’t been clear or specific about what that meaning is. You can always use a word that offers greater clarity, accuracy, or specificity. Take the time to choose a better word.



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