Welcome to the world of useless spelling checkers and grammar checkers! No, I’m not saying that they won’t help you write less error- ridden articles, but there are some things that no spelling or grammar checker can help you with. One of these is the age-old problem of homophones.
What is a homophone?
Simply stated, a homophone is a group of words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently to give different meanings. For example the words: “to”, “too” and “two”. While this example may seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how often these words are used improperly. The key to getting them right is to learn the meaning of each of these words. Using this example, if you know that the word “two” is the word for the number “2”, and that “too” means that something is more than enough or excessive, then you’ll know that you don’t want to use either of them if you’re writing “I want to go to the park”.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The problem is, not everyone is always clear about the meanings of the words they’re using. And right there – you have another example a homophone people use improperly in their writing. Did you see them in this paragraph? Yes, I’m talking about “there”, “their” and “they’re”. If you can’t remember which one to use of these three words, the trick is simple: remember first that “they’re” is actually a conjunction of two words “they” and “are”, so if you want to say “they are”, then you can use “they’re”, instead. Next, “there” is the opposite of “here”, which shouldn’t be hard to remember because you can see the word “there”, is just the word “here” with a “t” in front of it. Lastly, the word “their” means “belongs to them”.
This, of course, brings us to the other classic homophone “here” and “hear”. If you can remember that the word “ear” is in the word “hear” you’ll know which word to use when you want to say someone listened to something.
Similar to this is the “your” and “you’re” homophone. If you can keep in mind that “you’re” is the conjunction of “you” and “are” so if you want to say “you are”, you can use “you’re”. But if you want to talk about something that you own – meaning that it belongs to you, you’ll say it is your item.
These are just a few example of the most commonly misused homophones, which happen to be the ones that are simple to learn, and therefore easy to avoid. On the other hand, there are some that give even me pause:
“Weather” and “whether”: One way I can remember which one to use is by remembering this: “I don’t know whether to wear a coat or not. Is the weather cold outside?”
“Its” and “it’s”: this is probably the most difficult homophone to learn how to use. If you can remember that “it’s” means “it is” as well as being the possessive of “it” – meaning something that belongs to it – that will help. Of course, this gets into the proper use of apostrophes, which is a whole different problem altogether. If you want help with those, often your spelling checker will know the right one to use. If you don’t want to depend on that, I recommend the Yahoo Style Guide as an excellent resource for help in that area.
“Affect” and “effect”: some people will be helped by remembering that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. However, “effect” can also be used as a verb – and that’s what complicates things. Knowing that “affect” means “to influence something”, and “effect” means “the result of”, might help you. Another way to figure out which word to use is to remember the line: “the light affects had an effect on me” and note that the two words appear alphabetically in this sentence.
“Then” and “than”: while some people actually pronounce these two slightly differently, that doesn’t mean they use them correctly. If you can remember that you use “then” when talking about a sequence of events, and “than” when comparing things, this will help. For instance, “I know you like sweets better than you like real food, but if you eat all your vegetables, then you can have dessert.”
These little tips should help you avoid these mistakes and make your writing not only better, but look and sound more professional. More writing guides are available from the Yahoo Style Guide, and it may be useful to try their Build a List feature, where you can put your own hints and tips for proper word usage.