Choosing the wrong word will at best make readers laugh, at worst make you look illiterate. Shake a fist at the etymological powers that be if it makes you feel better, but here are some tricky homonyms we see and hear misused often.
Homonyms: words that sound the same but have different meanings, origins or spellings. Not all of these are homonyms, but people mix them up as though they are. Here’s a quick test of your homonym prowess. Fill in the blank with the appropriate word from the brackets.
The movie Gnomeo and Juliet was an obvious ______ to Shakespeare.
All the ________ is missing from my desk.
You must ______ your sources.
Too many ______ in one room make me sneeze.
I like sweets better ______ ice cream.
(insure, assure, ensure)
______ the baby doesn’t fall down the stairs.
How did you do? Find out below.
allusion – illusion
Illusion: something that misleads, points to a reality that doesn’t exist.
David Copperfield uses illusions to perform many of his tricks.
Allusion: a passing or casual reference to something else.
The allusion to Shakespeare in Gnomeo and Juliet was obvious.
accept – except
Accept: to agree to or receive something.
I accept your apology.
Except: often paired with ‘that’ and used in place of otherwise, but, and only.
I would hire her except that she lies.
I would accept that excuse for missing work, except that I saw you at the baseball game on TV.
elicit – illicit
Illicit: forbidden or against the law.
Cocaine is an illicit drug.
Elicit: to draw out or evoke.
The baby’s smile elicited grins from all the adults
further – farther
Further: a superlative to farther, a more distant point.
That horse ran further than ever before.
Farther: at a great distance.
Grandma’s house is farther down the road.
loose – lose
Loose: (verb) to set free or release; (adverb) not tied or fixed in place.
My son has a loose tooth.
Loose the hounds!
Lose: to misplace; cease to retain, have or gain.
I hate to lose at checkers.
Did you lose your keys?
Pick up the loose change in the cushions before you lose it all.
ensure – insure – assure
Ensure: to secure or guarantee.
Please ensure your seat belt is fastened.
Insure: to arrange for compensation in the event of damage, injury or loss.
In Canada, insuring your vehicle is mandatory.
Assure: to dispel any doubts.
I assure you, it’s a bad idea to stick objects up your nose.
To ensure that people insure their vehicles, be assured that police will ask to see your license, ownership, and insurance.
than – then
Than: used as a comparative.
My dress is prettier than yours.
Then: Denotes time – immediately or soon after.
I did the laundry, washed the dishes, and then went to bed.
tact – tack
Tact: knowing what to say or do to avoid giving offense.
Streaking across the gym lacked tact.
Tack: a pin with a flat head; also a sailing term, and an equestrian term referring to riding equipment; see dictionary for others.
I dropped a tack on the floor, be careful.
The saddle goes in the tack room.
sense – scents
Sense: hearing, seeing, taste, touch, smell – a method of perceiving stimuli; a perception or feeling.
It’s said that other senses are improved when one is damaged or impaired.
I sense that you’re angry with me.
Scents: a distinctive odour or smell.
Strong scents make me sneeze.
cite – site
Cite: to quote something or someone, especially an authority.
You must cite all sources in your article.
Site: a position or location of a town, building, etc.
The proposed site for the new court house requires the demolition of the bus terminal.
stationary – stationery
Stationary: to be still or in one place.
A stationary house is a stable one.
Stationery: materials used to write notes, letters, etc.
Business Depot is a great place to buy stationery.
Break – to separate or cause to separate
Don’t play baseball in the front yard, you could break a window.
Brake – a device for stopping a moving vehicle, usually by friction; something that stops or slows action
Air brakes make a lot of noise.
Check out Marcy’s post on the 6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers.
What are some of your favorite homonyms?