Homophones and Spellcheck

About Homophones and Spellcheck

Spellcheck is getting increasingly good about detecting them, but there’s really nothing quite like a human to understand the nuances of context and intent.

Dear Tori, English isn’t my first language, but I feel like I generally speak and write it pretty well. One thing that really throws me are words like through, threw, and thorough. When I’m talking to my friends it doesn’t matter that I don’t know which spelling I’m using, but when I’m writing papers I get these kinds of words mixed up all the time–and spell-check doesn’t catch it. What can I do to catch these errors before I turn in my papers?

I could, of course, suggest that you hire an editor to look over all your papers and catch your mistakes. But the real issue is not that you’re making mistakes—it’s that you’re not sure how to catch them. (By the way, the fact that you recognize this shortcoming and are looking to correct it is a good indication of the fact that you’re truly ready to overcome it.)

Uthra and Gail have both written about homophones in the “Confusing Words” posts from 2013. You might want to check them out: Confusing Words and Confusing Words 2.

In case you’d like a refresher, though, here are some quick definitions to help you distinguish homophones:

  • “Accept” means receive, but “except” means other than.
  • “Affect” is a verb, but “effect” is a noun. (Usually.)
  • “Breath” is a noun, but “breathe” is a verb.
  • “Compliment” is praise, but “complement” is that which completes.
  • “Conscience” is morality, but “conscious” is cognizant.
  • “Desert” is an arid climate, but “dessert” is a delicious after-meal treat.
  • “Hear” is what your ears do, but “here” is where you are.
  • “Its” is possessive, but “it’s” means “it is.”
  • “Lead” means either a type of metal or the act of guiding, but “led” is the past tense of to lead.
  • “Lie” is the present tense of the intransitive verb for reclining, or the verb that means to tell a falsehood, but “lay” is the present tense of the transitive verb for setting something down (or the past tense of “lie”).
  • “Lose” is the verb that means to misplace, but “loose” is the adjective that describes something not tight or contained.
  • “Stationary” means unmoving, but “stationery” refers to that which you use in epistolary correspondences.
  • “Than” compares to things, but “then” refers to subsequent activity.
  • “Their” is the possessive form of the word “they,” but “there” refers to location and “they’re” is the conjunction of “they” and “are.”
  • “Through” means “by way of,” but “threw” means tossed.
  • “To” indicates trajectory, but “too” means “also” and “two” means one more than one.

It can be a lot to remember, so it might be helpful to bookmark this page to refer to when you find yourself uncertain about your word usage. If you’d rather have some more detailed explanations, here are some handy references with mnemonic devices for remembering homophones:




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