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The English language is complex, no doubt about it. Hidden among the thousands of common words we use every day, lurk some of the most troublesome. There are some words that sound the same and are spelled the same but have different meanings. There are other words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. And some words are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and multiple meanings based on the context of the sentence. Yikes! It’s no wonder we get confused.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common troublemakers—homophones, homographs, heterographs, homonyms, and heteronyms—and learn what makes them unique and how to use them correctly.
The first two word types we need to talk about are homophones and homographs. The other three types fit into one or both of these two main groups.
Homophones are words that sound the same and have different meanings.
Here are some common homophones:
- blue and blew
- which and witch
- week and weak
- peace and piece
- to, too, and two
- their, there, and they’re
Let’s use homophones in sentences:
Light blue is my favorite color.
The wind blew the leaves all over the yard.
Which kind of apple tastes sweetest?
My sister, Kate, wore a spooky witch costume to the party.
Homographs are words that are spelled the same and have different meanings.
Here are some common homographs:
- desert (dry, barren area) and desert (to abandon)
- wound (a cut or bruise) and wound (past tense of the verb to wind)
- bow (a hair decoration) and bow (to take a bow at the end of a performance)
- dove (a bird) and dove (past tense of the verb dive)
Let’s use homographs in sentences:
Have you ever seen a mirage in the desert?
A good soldier would never desert his post.
Abigail wore a yellow bow in her hair today.
The magician took a big bow at the end of his show.
So now that we have homophones and homographs figured out, let’s break them down a little further.
Homonyms are words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings. They’re considered both homophones and homographs.
Here are some common homonyms:
- custom (unique) and custom (tradition)
- fair (festival), fair (equitable), and fair (pleasant weather)
- bark (sound a dog makes) and bark (on a tree)
- crane (construction vehicle), crane (bird), and crane (to stretch)
Let’s use homonyms in sentences:
Emily is so excited to go to the county fair on Saturday.
Mom thinks the three-dollar entrance fee is fair.
Why does that big, black dog always bark at delivery men?
Look, the bark on that maple tree is peeling!
Heterographs are homophones that are spelled differently, but sound the same and have different meanings.
Here are some common heterographs:
- pair, pare, and pear
- flower and flour
- week and weak
- need and knead
- pause and paws
- hair and hare
Let’s use heterographs in sentences:
A bunny ate the biggest flower in our garden.
My sister spilled flour on the kitchen floor.
Anne of Green Gables had bright red hair.
The Tortoise and the Hare teaches a valuable lesson.
Heteronyms are homographs that are spelled the same, but sound different and have different meanings.
Here are some common heteronyms:
- windy (blustery) and windy (twists and turns)
- present (gift) and present (to introduce)
- close (near) and close (to block passage)
- lead (to take charge of) and lead (a chemical element)
- house (a dwelling) and house (to provide living quarters)
- sow (to plant a seed) and sow (a female pig)
Let’s use heteronyms in sentences:
Grandma certainly sows a lot of pumpkin seeds in spring.
My grandfather has six sows on his farm.
Those bees are too close for comfort!
“Please, close the back door,” mom said.
Practice Makes Perfect
OK, so now that you have a better understanding of the unique, and sometimes subtle, differences between some of the most confusing words ever, let’s practice.
- Try having your student use pairs of these similar words in a sentence. Chain the sentences together to make a paragraph.
Example: The traveling elephant used his trunk to pack a large trunk. The wind blew and made his blue scarf wind around him. He untangled it, pulled it close, and finally got the trunk to close. “Phew! That was tricky,” he exclaimed!
- Make a memory matching game using index cards. Have your student draw pictures representing each half of a word pair onto index cards and lay them out in a grid. He or she can pick cards one at a time and try to match the pairs.
One more tip: Try keeping a list of these types of words separate from your student’s spelling list for easy reference. If a homophone or homograph is on his or her spelling list, add it and its matching word to a “Tricky Words” list. You can use that list for the activities above! If you need a list of words to start from, try our “Commonly Confused Words” list. For a jump start to help your student figure out the similarities and differences between these word types, and how to use them correctly, try a Time4Writing course. Our certified writing teachers can help to demystify complex words like these and give your student a strong foundation on which to build their writing skills.