What are Homophones

Introduction to topic

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at the third conditional. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.

What are Homophones?

In case you have never heard of homophones before, let’s first think of what they are. Homophones are words which sound the same but have a different meaning and spelling. This is definitely a thing that makes learning English so tricky. As you might remember, a few weeks ago we did a lesson about something similar. We talked about heteronyms. Heteronyms are words with the same spelling, but different pronunciation and meaning. You can find the lesson about it here.
But back to today’s topic, homophones. Here are some examples of really common homophones, that can confuse people:

  • herePut it down here.
    hearSpeak louder, I can’t hear you.
  • seeIt’s so dark, I can’t see anything.
    seaLet’s go swim in the sea.
  • beWill you be my friend?
    beeThe bumble bee was on the flower.

As you can see, or better hear, those word pairs sound the same but are written differently and mean something completely different as well. Those homophones also cause problems for L1 speakers. Homophones can cause a lot of issues with spelling. You’ll see that especially in children, when they’re learning to write. They very often confuse words because they sound the same. So, if L1 speakers already struggle with these kinds of words, it is no wonder that it is very challenging, or potentially more challenging, for L2 speakers of English. It is even more challenging if you have a different script.

The other issue I mentioned at the beginning is that homophones can cause problems with your accuracy in your writing. If we use the word which sounds the same, but the spelling is wrong, that’s going to cause issues with meaning, your grammatical accuracy and also with your spelling. No need to say that this is going to bring your marks down in an exam. And, even if you’re not doing an exam, if you’re having to write a letter for work for example, it’s going to create a bad image. I think we can agree, homophones are an important area to work on.

Can you hear the correct word?

Another issue, I haven’t mentioned yet is that Homophones also can cause comprehension problems with your listening. Imagine you listen to someone and they are using a word which doesn’t make sense. This might be because it’s a homophone and you don’t know the other word which has the same sound. We are going to try this out now.  I’m going to say some words, and I want you to write down what you hear me say. Start the video at 4.10 min to hear the words. You’ll find below the solution to this exercise. The word in orange is what Claire actually said, followed by some homophones.

Solutions to the homophones listening task

Obviously, when we listen to someone speak we have the context and will know which word is meant. If I’m saying “I’m in bed with the flu”, you know that I’m talking about the illness and not the past of the verb fly. Context is always going to help us.

Homophones are important for your writing

As I already said, Homophones can affect the accuracy of your writing. This is particularly important if you are preparing for an exam, but also in general for any official writing as it will look bad. I’ve made a list with some of the most common errors that I read when I’m correcting students’ work that are related to the issue of homophones.

Showing some really common accuracy errors that often appear in students' writing related to homophones

I’d like to point out that who and how aren’t exactly homophones, because they do sound different but they are very similar and I very often see those two written incorrectly. Very often people write how instead of who, which is understandable as it’s only three letters and they’re just in a slightly different order. So, it makes sense that we would make errors with that.

Please, don’t feel bad if you are making mistakes with those words. This is really difficult. I see L1 speakers making mistakes with these words all the time. The following combinations especially cause a lot of problems: it’s vs itstheir vs they’re vs thereto vs two vs too and whose vs who’s. It’s not necessarily people who are not good at writing who make those mistakes. Those mistakes happen because people are writing quickly and they don’t really think it through. So, those mistakes are very common and can be quite challenging. But, we can work on it. I have a brilliant webiste for you called English Club. In their pronunciation section they’ve got tons and tons of exercises on homophones. You can start with the easier elementary tasks and work up to the advanced tasks. You can access the exercises here.

Analyze your writing

Another thing, which will help you to minimize your mistakes in relation to homophones, is to keep a record of common accuracy errors which happen because of homophones. This is something that quite often people don’t do with their writing. When you’ve done a piece of writing , always look through it, especially after you’ve done four or five pieces of writing. Look at the feedback that your teacher gave you and look for repeated errors. This is not only helpful for errors in relation to homophones but also if you’re making the same spelling errors, colocation mistakes or punctuation errors all the time.

Analyse your writing and look for those patterns. Those kinds of mistakes are very often repeated. Think about them and make a little list for yourself. So, whenever you do a new writing task you can check at the end for the errors on your list. For example, if you always make mistakes with their, they’re and there, keep that in mind and check your writing for it. You can adapt this to any repeated mistake pattern. Remember the first step to getting rid of a mistake is recognising it. If you’re able to identify an error you’re on your way to getting rid of it.

And the other thing is our attitude towards making mistakes. I think we always think very negatively about making mistakes. But making mistakes is great. Making mistakes is where you learn. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. We’re always going to make mistakes. It’s just that as you advance, you’ll make more advanced mistakes.

Can you think of any other tricky Homophones? Let us know in the comments!

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