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What is a Homophone?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Homophone means "sounds the same," and a homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, while having a different spelling and a different meaning. Many homophone examples turn up in lists of frequently confused words. They are the words that make up one of the largest classes of typo. Some examples of common homophones that people often substitute for each other when writing include the following:

  • there, their, they're
  • too, to, two
  • all ready, already
  • capital, capitol
  • cite, sight, site
  • stationary, stationery
  • idle, idol
  • its, it's
  • lead, led
  • miner, minor
  • plain, plane
  • weather, whether
  • all together, altogether
  • who's, whose

The word homophone should not be confused with homograph, which means "written the same." Homophone should also be distinguished from homonym, which refers to a word that both sounds the same and looks the same, but has a different meaning from and different origin than another word.

What "same sound" means is open to some interpretation however, because not everyone agrees that pronunciation has to be identical for two words to be homophones. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionaries identify as homophones words that sound the same while having different stress. An example is the noun insight, which is accented on the first syllable, and the verb incite, which is accented on the second and final syllable.

In addition, since the dialects of English include as one facet different pronunciations, it is a fact that different people have different homophones. As the famous example goes, for some speakers of English, Mary, merry, and marry are homophones. For others, they are words in which the vowels have three quite distinct pronunciations.

When identifying homophones, it is important to keep in mind that spelling variants do not create homophones. For example, yoghurt and yogurt are not homophones; they're the same word spelled two different ways. The same goes for cookie and cooky. This is also true for multiple-meaning words, which are considered to be a single word, and therefore not eligible to be called homographs.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon280954 — On Jul 21, 2012

Re: Homophones. It has been a joyous thing to me learning about homophones. I comment so much on this because it has given me boldness on how to speak, and on how to use a particular word in its appropriate place without any mistakes.

By CaithnessCC — On May 30, 2011

When I was teaching English as a second language I found the homophone - homograph issue really affected the students. The first affected their writing and the second came up in pronunciation based misunderstandings.

A good example is the word 'wind', which can refer to the weather or to an action. Try saying 'I need to wind my watch every night before bed' with the wrong stress! For me this conjured up visions of having a colicky baby over your shoulder.

By yumdelish — On May 29, 2011

When I was a grade school student we had to learn a new list of homophones every week for English class. I dreaded it because if you spelled a word in the wrong way once you'd seen it on the sheet there was no mercy! There and their dogged me for many years.

Later in life I decided to study French, exposing myself to the dreaded homophones lists once again, and in a foreign language to boot! I am eternally grateful for the patience of that teacher, who was chalk and cheese from the terror who nearly killed my interest in words.

By Acracadabra — On May 27, 2011

@anon137344 - As far as I know the merging of the sounds you mentioned so they become homophones is most likely to be heard in the eastern part of North America.

A similar type of thing is the way British people tend to make Ireland and island sound the same. To an American this is odd, as they tend to use the 'r', and say 'ayer-land' and 'eye-land'.

I'm not sure any of these would be used as examples if you asked a linguist to define a homophone, but it's interesting anyhow.

By anon137344 — On Dec 27, 2010

What is the famous example of "Mary, marry and merry" being homophones for some English speakers? I've never heard of it! Would it not be better for this article's usefulness if the example could be given?

By Petra52623 — On Dec 27, 2010

Then (time) and than (comparison).

Affect (verb, action) and effect (noun, subject).

Receipt (Sale) and recipe (food).

By anon137279 — On Dec 27, 2010

your and you're.

By pocurana — On Sep 03, 2008

some more homophones:

write and right

toe and tow

all ready and already

everything and every thing

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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