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It’s the classic case of betrayal. You trust it, but the moment you look away, it’s taunting you behind your back. Before this happened, you thought you had used the right spelling, but you (and your spellchecking software) didn’t notice the homophones.
Homophones are words that are spelled differently and mean different things but sound the same when you pronounce them. Need some examples?
- It’s, its.
- There, their, they’re.
- To, too, two.
Even if you aren’t a grammar nerd, you’ve probably noticed those mistakes. Unfortunately, even if you know the difference between they’re and there, you’re not safe. The English language teems with other homophones that are commonly misspelled.
How many of these mistakes do YOU make?
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the definitions for each word. Instead, it highlights the most common definition for each word.
#1: Principal vs. Principle
Commonly mistaken for each other, these words mean very different things. A principal is usually a person—specifically, the authority figure at a school. A principle, however, is an abstract noun, something often meaning virtue.
I got sent to the principal‘s office at school today.
I will stick to my principles and tell the truth, even if it hurts.
#2: Forage vs. Forge
Your spellchecker probably won’t catch this embarrassing mistake. Forage means to harvest edibles from the wild, while forge is instead used in the context of processing metal.
When I pick wild blackberries, I forage for food.
The metal object was forged in the blacksmith’s shop.
#3: Dessert vs. Desert
One “s” is the difference between a sweet and sandy situation! A dessert is the sweet last course of a meal. Puddings, ice creams, and cakes are all desserts. A desert, however, is a very different noun. A desert is a place with lots of sand dunes and sunshine.
My favorite dessert is chocolate cake.
I dreamed about the Sahara Desert last night.
#4: Forth vs. Fourth
Here’s another mistake your spellchecker probably won’t catch. While forth is a direction you go, fourth is the ordinal number that comes after third.
I’m scared, but I will travel forth into the future.
This is the fourth homophone set in this blog post.
#5: Setup vs. Set Up
I’m sure you’ve seen this mistake. While they aren’t spelled differently, adding a space turns a noun into a verb. Setup (no space) is a noun. It’s something that is already prepared and ready for you to use. Set up (with a space) is a verb. It shows an action that occurs while you’re preparing something.
I just love the new office setup!
Please set up the books before they fall.
#6: Stationary vs. Stationery
An English course gave me a quick and easy way to remember the difference between these two words. Stationery is something you write letters on, while stationary describes an object that doesn’t move. (The word stationery is spelled with an “e,” like envelope.)
The tree hasn’t moved. It has remained stationary.
I bought new stationery for writing letters to my friends.
“Look it up in the dictionary.” That’s what my Mom often said when I asked how to spell a word.
“But, Mom!” I’d exclaim. “How can I look it up in the dictionary if I don’t know how to spell it?”
As I’ve learned more about English, however, I’ve grown to love the dictionary, especially when it comes to tracking down tricky mistakes. If you aren’t sure whether you’re using the right word in the right context, just look it up in the dictionary.