Improve Your Vocabulary: Homonyms Part 1

You don't need me to tell you that English is one confusing language! There are even words that sound the same as each other, but are spelled differently and mean completely different things — how fair is that?! (Not very.)


Tip: If you are serious about improving your vocabulary, then Troy and I highly recommend you try the popular vocabulary program, Ultimate Vocabulary. Click Ultimate Vocabulary for further information.*


Homonyms is the "official" name for these confusing words. There are two varieties; homephones are words that sound the same, but have different spelling, and homographs, which are words that sound the same and are spelled the same, but have different meanings. Homographs are covered in this article.

And how on earth are you supposed to know the difference between these words when you come across them in spoken English?! Context is the key here ... figure out what make the most sense. If someone says, for example, "I think I'll climb that boulder", it makes most sense that they want to climb a rock, and not climb "more daringly". If someone says, "Would you like a glass of wine?", they almost always mean "Would you like a nice glass of this alcoholic drink?" rather than "Would you like a glass of complaining?"

Below is a lengthy, but not comprehensive, list of just some of the hundreds of homophones in English. I have given a short indication of the main meaning for each word (many of these words have multiple meanings, they are not included here). If I've included two definitions, they are separated by a comma.

Remember, all of these words (either pairs or triplets) are pronounced the same way, but as you can see, their spelling is quite different, and their meanings even more so. I hope that this list helps you to avoid being tripped up when reading and writing English! It also will come in handy if you like to solve cryptic crosswords, as cryptic setters love to use these sorts of tricky words in their clues. They are also the very stuff of puns. You have been warned!


ad — an advertisement
add — count up

aid — help
aide — assistant

affect — change
effect — result or consequence

air — atmosphere
err — be incorrect

aisle — walkway
I’ll — contraction of "I will"
isle — small island

allowed — permitted
aloud — audibly

arc — curve
ark — huge ship, eg Noah’s ark

ate — consumed
eight — number between seven and nine

ball — spherical toy
bawl — cry

band — musical group
banned — forbidden

bare — naked
bear — grizzly animal

be — exist
bee — insect

berry — small fruit
bury — put underground

base — lowest part
bass — deep singing voice, type of fish

be — to exist
bee — buzzing insect

beach — sandy shore
beech — type of tree

beat — hit
beet — vegetable

berth — tie up
birth — to be born

billed — invoiced
build — construct

bite — sink one's teeth into
byte — 8 bits (computer data)

blew — gusted, exhaled
blue — primary colour

boar — wild pig
bore — drill, be tedious to

board — plank of wood
bored — drilled, stupefied

bolder — more daring
boulder — large rock

borough — administrative district
burrow — dig through, or rabbit's hole
burro — small donkey

bough — branch
bow — bend or curtsy, front of ship, ribbon decoration

brake — car pedal
break — smash

bread — baked food
bred — brought up

broach — bring up a difficult subject
brooch — decorative pin

brows — eyebrows
browse — look around

buoy — anchored float
boy — young male

buy — purchase
by — beside
bye — short for goodbye

caret — editing mark
carrot — vegetable
carat — unit of weight
karat — unit of weight (US)

cell — compartment, biological unit
sell — trade

cent — coin
sent — dispatched
scent — pleasant smell

census — official survey
senses — sensory faculties

cereal — breakfast food
serial — sequential

chews — chomps
choose — select

Chile — country in South America
chilli — spicy small pepper / capsicum
chilly — frosty

choral — sung by a choir
coral — hard substance found in reefs

chord — group of three or more notes
cord — rope

chute — sloping channel
shoot — put a bullet in

cite — refer to, quote
site — location
sight — view

colonel — army rank
kernel — edible part of nut

complement — enhance; go together
compliment — praise

council — committee
counsel — guidance

creak — squeak, groan
creek — stream of water

crews — sailors 
cruise — boat trip

cymbal — percussion instrument
symbol — emblem, icon

days — seven in a week
daze — stun

dear — darling, expensive
deer — woodland animal

dew — morning mist
do — perform an action
due — owing

die — cease to exist
dye — pigment

discreet — careful
discrete — separate

discussed — talked over
disgust — revulsion

doe — female deer
dough — uncooked pastry or bread

dual — twofold
duel — fight between two people

earn — be paid
urn — tall vase

ewe — female sheep
you — second person singular or plural pronoun

eye — sight organ
— first person singular pronoun

fair — equitable
fare — ticket price

fairy — imaginary creature
ferry — boat

faze — disturb
phase — step, period

feat — attainment
feet — plural of foot

find — locate
fined — penalised

fir — tree
fur — animal hair

flea — insect
flee — run away

flew — travelled through the air
flu — illness
flue — duct, chimney

flour — ground up grain
flower — plant's bloom

for — on behalf of
fore — in front
four — number after three

forth — onwards
fourth — number four in a sequence

foul — offensive
fowl — bird

frees — liberates
freeze — turn into ice

gneiss — rock
nice — enjoyable

gnu — wildebeest
knew — had knowledge about
new — recent

gored — stabbed
gourd — large fruit

gorilla — ape
guerrilla — freedom fighter

grease — fat
Greece — Mediterranean country

greys — shades of black
graze — feed on grassland

grate — shred
great — considerable

groan — moan
grown — expanded

guessed — estimated
guest — visitor

gym — health club
Jim — boy's name

hair — tresses
hare — leaping mammal

hale — strong
hail — frozen rain

hall — room, passageway
haul — drag

halve — cut in two parts
have — possess

hay — animal food
hey — interjection to get attention

heal — mend
heel — back of foot
he'll — contraction of "he will" or "he shall"

heard — listened to
herd — group of animals

hew — chop
hue — colour
Hugh — boy's name

hi — hello
high — tall, elevated

higher — more elevated
hire — rent

him — third person singular pronoun, masculine
hymn — religious song

hoarse — croaky, rough
horse — animal

hole — opening
whole — complete

holey — full of holes
holy — divine
wholly — entirely

hour — sixty minutes
our — belonging to us

idle — not working
idol — object of worship

in — inside
inn — country pub

incite — stir up
insight — intuition

its — belonging to it
it's — contraction of "it is"

jam — fruit conserve
jamb — side post of a door

jeans — pants
genes — genetic units

knead — work dough
need — require

knew — had knowledge
new — latest

knight — champion of Middle Ages
night — evening

knot — tied string
not — negative adverb

know — have knowledge
no — opposite of yes

knows — has knowledge
nose — organ for smelling

lead — soft metal
led — guided

leased — rented
least — smallest amount

lessen — make smaller
lesson — class

lie — untruth, lie down
lye — strong alkaline solution, used in soap making

links — loops, connections
lynx — wild cat

load — cargo
lode — vein of metal ore

loan — borrow, credit
lone — solitary

locks — secures
lox — smoked salmon

loot — stolen goods
lute — stringed instrument

made — created
maid — servant

mail — post
male — masculine

maize — corn
maze — winding puzzle path

marry — wed
merry — very happy

meat — animal flesh as food
meet — encounter

medal — commemorative badge
meddle — interfere

mince — cut up finely, minced meat
mints — peppermint sweets

miner — man who works in a mine
minor — lesser in importance

missed — failed to reach
mist — fog

morning — early part of the day
mourning — grieving

muscle — fibrous body tissue that produces movement
mussel — bivalve mollusc

no — not any, opposite of yes
know — be aware

none — not any
nun — religious sister

oar — boat paddle
or — otherwise
ore — mineral

oh — expression of surprise
owe — be in debt to

one — half of two
won — came first

overdo — do too much
overdue — behind schedule

paced — walked
paste — adhesive

pail — bucket
pale — not bright

pain — hurt
pane — window glass

pare — trim, reduce
pear — fruit

passed — overtook
past — gone by in time

patience — tolerance
patients — people receiving medical treatment

pause — brief interruption
paws — animal's feet

peace — tranquillity
piece — portion

peak — mountain top
peek — glance at
pique — irritation

pi — Greek letter π, 3.14159...
pie — baked dish in pastry shell

plain — ordinary
plane — flat surface, aeroplane

pole — post
poll — vote, survey

poor — poverty-stricken
pour — flow

presence — existence
presents — gifts

prince — royal son
prints — imprints, publishes

principal — most important, school head
principle — belief

quarts — liquid measures
quartz — hard mineral

rain — moisture falling from clouds
rein — restraint, horse's strap
reign — rule as monarch

raise — lift
rays — beams of sunlight
raze — completely destroy

rap — hit
wrap — cover, bundle up

read — peruse written material
reed — marsh grass

read — had perused
red — primary colour

real — actual
reel — cylinder, stagger

rest — relax
wrest — seize

review — analysis
revue — light theatrical entertainment

right — correct; opposite of left
write — put in writing, compose
rite — ceremony

ring — encircle, finger jewellery
wring — squeeze and twist

road — highway
rode — sat on, travelled
rowed — propelled a boat with oars

roe — fish eggs
row — propel a boat with oars

role — actor's part, function
roll — rotate

root — part of a plant
route — course, journey

rose — flower
rows — lines of things

rote — mechanically
wrote — put in writing

rye — cereal plant
wry — ironic, disgusted

sacks — cloth bags
sax — brass instrument (saxophone)

sail — travel in boat
sale — vending, bargain

scene — location
seen — viewed

seam — stitching
seem — appear to be

seas — oceans
sees — perceives
seize — grab

serge — sturdy fabric
surge — rush forward, rise

sew — stitch
so — very much, therefore
sow — plant seeds

shoe — foot covering
shoo — exclamation to drive away something

side — edge, faction
sighed — breathed out

sighs — breaths out
size — dimensions

sign — indication, notice, autograph
sine — trigonometric function

sight — vision
site — location
cite — quote

slay — kill
sleigh — travel on a sledge drawn by horses

soar — fly up
sore — painful

soared — flew up
sword — blade

sole — part of foot, only
soul — spirit

son — male child
sun — central star of our solar system

some — unspecified amount
sum — quantity, add up

staid — sedate, serious
stayed — remained

stairs — steps
stares — gazes at fixedly

stake — wooden post, wager
steak — thick slab of beef

stationary — not moving
stationery — writing and office materials

steal — thieve, rob
steel — alloy of carbon and iron

straight — without a curve
strait — narrow passage of water

suede — soft leather
swayed — rocked, wavered

summary — synopsis
summery — relating to summer

tacks — pins
tax — government levy

tail — end of an animal
tale — story

taut — stretched tight
taught — educated

tea — hot drink
tee — golf peg

teas — hot drinks
tease — make fun of
tees — golf pegs

tents — camping shelters
tense — rigid, anxious

tern — seabird
turn — rotate, change direction

there — at that position
their — belonging to them
they're — contraction of "they are"

threw — flung
through — into and out of

throne — monarch's chair
thrown — hurled

thyme — culinary herb
time — hour, moment

tide — ebb and flow of sea
tied — fastened with string

tighten — make tighter
Titan — older god (Greek mythology)

to — movement towards
too — excessively
two — number after one

toad — amphibian
toed — having toes
towed — pulled behind

toe — digit on end of foot
tow — pull along

tracked — followed
tract — area of land, treatise

trussed — tied up
trust — confidence

use — make use of
ewes — female sheep (plural)

vary — be different
very — extremely

vein — blood vessel
vane — blade on a wheel

verses — poetry
versus — aganist

vial — small glass container
vile — horrible

wade — walk through water
weighed — measured weight of

wail — cry
whale — massive marine mammal

waist — area below ribs
waste — fritter away, wither

wait — stand by, remain
weight — heaviness

waive — relinquish
wave — move to and fro, surf

Wales — principality of Great Britain
whales — huge marine mammals

war — combat
wore — was dressed in

warn — notify of danger
worn — shabby

way — method, road
weigh — measure mass
whey — watery part of milk

we — us
wee — tiny, urine

weak — frail
week — period of seven days

weather — meteorological conditions
whether — choice between alternatives

we'd — contraction of "we would", "we should" or "we had"
weed — unwanted plant

weld — join metal together
welled — rose up and spilled over

we'll — contraction of "we will"
wheel — disc

we've — contraction of "we have"
weave — entwine

which — that
witch — sorceress

whine — complaining
wine — alcoholic drink

whirled — twirled, hurried
world — the earth

whirred — made low sound
word — term, promise

who's — contraction of "who is" or "who has"
whose — belonging to which person?

wood — timber
would — polite request, consequence of imagined event

worst — poorest quality
wurst — German sausage

yoke — wooden harness for animals
yolk — yellow part of an egg

you'll — contraction of "you will" or "you shall"
yule — Christmas

your — belonging to you
you’re — contraction of "you are"
yore — of long ago


*Troy and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary software because we are happy to endorse that software.

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 November 2015 02:15
English Language Skills (Denise)

English Language Skills (Denise)

I'm a syndicated puzzle writer, with 8 puzzle books to my name, including Word Searches for Dummies and Cracking Codes and Cryptograms for Dummies (with Mark Koltko-Rivera). I have a background in science and graphic design, and am a trained indexer. My favourite puzzles are cryptic crosswords. and my favourite books are murder mysteries and cookbooks. I am also a very keen knitter.

I write a blog all about puzzles, called Puzzling.

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