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Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Hom-a-what?!: Ayden's Easy Guide to Homonyms

You don't have to be an English major to understand the rules of basic grammar. Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that we've stopped learning the basics in favor of that handy-dandy grammar check feature in our word processing programs.

What Word forgot to tell you, however, is that their rules don't necessarily work well in the real world. Just because Word doesn't tell you that you used "their" wrong, doesn't mean you're right. In fact, Word very rarely correctly differentiates between homonyms or contraction and possessive forms of said homonyms.

Contrary to popular belief, there is a difference. And that difference is important. It's also fairly simple.

Homonyms are groups of words that sound the same, but have different meanings, and can include possessive and contraction forms of a given word (such as your/you're, or their/they're).

If you can rewrite (or read) a sentence with any of the following words, you're looking at a contraction:


If none of those words apply, you're typically not looking at a contraction. You're looking at a possessive pronoun, adjective, etc.

Common Offenders:

Your - possessive, as in: Your welcome was most appreciated.
You're - contraction, as in: You're welcome.

Its - possessive, as in: Its tentacles were huge.
It's - contraction, as in: It's almost bedtime.

Its/It's is a little tricky because most of us are used to adding an apostrophe when referring to someone's possessions (like that). Its is one very big exception to that rule. The only time an apostrophe is used is when you're using the word as a contraction. No exceptions. So, the claws might belong to it, but it is special, so we skip the apostrophe.

Whose - possessive, as in: Whose clothes are these?
Who's - contraction, as in: Who's in the bathroom?

Their - possessive, as in: Their house is on fire.
They're - contraction, as in: They're going to be in so much trouble.
There - refers to a place/location, as in: The dog is over there.

Still confused?

When in doubt, read it out.

If you're still not sure if you need the possessive or contraction form of a word, read the sentence out loud. If one of the contractions from the list above fit, you're looking at the contraction, not the possessive.

Contraction and possesive forms of homonyms aren't the only ones we frequently mess up. In fact, they're just a few of them. A few other common offenders, none of which are possessive or contractive, are:

To - preposition, as in: I want to go to the store.
Too - synonym for also or an indication of excessiveness, as in: I want to go, too. or: I have too many books.
Two - the spelling of the number, as in: Two heads are better than one.

Than - comparative, as in Her room is better than his room.
Then - time or sequence, as in Let's swim first, and then surf later.

Peak - summit, as in: We climbed the peak of the mountain.
Peek - glimpse, as in: She tried to peek at her gift.
Pique - stimulate, as in: He piqued my curiosity.

Rain - water, as in: Is it going to rain today?
Rein - a leather strap used to guide, as in: Please rein in the horse before he kicks someone.
Reign - period of occupation or governance, as in: The dictator's reign was full of abuses of power.

You can find a more comprehensive list of commonly mixed up homonyms here.

In the case of a homonym, one cannot substitute one word for another without changing the meaning of the sentence. There are very few, if any, exceptions to this rule.

Pretty simple, right?



  1. All common errors here. As a teacher of many Korean students it can be frustrating to see their grammar. When I come into class waving the grammar book in the air I do hear more than a few expletives. lol

    Like I tell them, it's for their own good!

    Sweet post.

  2. Great post. I still find myself using the occasional misused word despite close to 14 years of writing experience, and homonyms are usually the most common mistakes we make. Thanks for posting this. :)

  3. I'm an English major, former English teacher, and current writer/editor. Thank you for posting this! I love grammar, but I know not everyone does. Still, that doesn't mean people shouldn't know these rules. :)

  4. I find these in some of the ms's of people I crit. It's very annoying when it happens a lot. I may have the occasional missing word or typo, but I never mess up homonyms. That's grade-school stuff.

    (Laura from YALitChat)

  5. I recently got an e-book from Amazon, a free one but I still expect a certain quality when I get a book from there, and it was seriously one of the worst written....anything that I've ever read. If the creativity behind the story hadn't been so good, I would have given up before the first chapter was over. She would have done well to have read this post or to have known you in general, just to have 5 minutes of your advice. And the very best part was that she had a masters in some field of science that she had worked in for 20 years, so I wonder how she wrote reports and the such. For being somewhere she used she would use presents instead of presence many many times. Disgust was used for talking things over instead of discuss. So really she was beyond regular homonyms. But she still could have benefited for your help, as could any writer, even if it's just by reading this blog!!