In the age of smartphones, computers, and technology, the subject of spelling may not seem all that important thanks to a certain ever-helpful invention—spellcheck.
Gone are the days of proofing papers for spelling mistakes! Banished are the never-ending lists of spelling words in homeschool curriculum! Dictionaries? Who needs them? Just rely on the squiggly red line for all your spelling needs, and you’ll be golden, right?
Well, not quite—at least, not according to the papers I grade as a scorer for Essentials in Writing. Sure, some of the spelling errors I see could have been fixed with a quick click of “Spelling and Grammar” in the toolbar, but there’s an entirely different subset of spelling errors that, even if spellcheck had been utilized, wouldn’t have been caught.
The reason? They were spelled correctly—but the word itself was wrong. That’s right: we’re talking about homophones.
Homophones, as a quick refresher, are words that sound alike but have different meanings and are spelled differently, such as “plain” and “plane” or “beet” and “beat.” Mixing up homophones when writing is a fairly common problem for everyone, including homeschool students, and can also lead to some funny mixups, such as “pier pressure” and “barley paying attention.”
If your homeschool student tends to fall prey to sneaky homophones, we’ve got you covered—and no, you don’t have to memorize every single homophone pair in the English language. Below is a list of some commonly confused homophones—and how to remember the difference between them.
Affect vs. Effect
This pair is particularly nasty because, from your second cousin’s Facebook post to a news article, it can start to feel like nobody knows the difference or which one to actually use. “Affect” is a verb, and “effect” is a noun.
Verb: Rain affects plant growth.
Noun: The vitamins caused a positive effect.
To help distinguish them, you can associate the “a” in “affect” with action and the “e” in “effect” with end—that is, the end result.
(Disclaimer: “affect” can be a noun, and “effect” can be a verb, but these cases are rare, especially for the topics homeschool students tend to write about.)
Board vs. Bored
Unless you happen to be made of plywood, you’re probably not board on a rainy afternoon inside. “Board” can be a noun or verb, and “bored” is an adjective.
Noun/Verb: The ninja kicked the board in half.
Adjective: I was bored after my phone died.
See that “oar” in the middle of “board”? Picture a wooden oar and associate it with that wooden board to help you remember the difference.
Brake vs. Break
If you don’t brake when driving, you might break something! These words can be both verbs and nouns, and their spellings are so similar that mixing them up is easy.
Noun/Verb: Brake the car gently when stopping.
Noun/Verb: Don’t break the window!
For this pair, just remember that if you’re not talking about a car, “brake” is probably the wrong option. “Break” is much more versatile.
Its vs. It’s
Here we have another incredibly common offender! “Its” is a pronoun, and “it’s” is a contraction.
Pronoun: The dog wagged its tail.
Contraction: It’s so nice to finally meet you!
Just remember—a contraction always includes an apostrophe. If you want to say “it is,” you need the word with the apostrophe.
Their vs. There vs. They’re
Whew, a triple homophone! Fortunately, each of these words is a different part of speech: “their” is a pronoun, “there” is an adverb, and “they’re” is a contraction.
Pronoun: The cows munched their grass.
Adverb: The treasure is over there!
Contraction: They’re bringing the trophy out now.
Let’s get “they’re” out of the way first. We know a contraction must have an apostrophe, so we know “they’re” must be the contraction—the word that includes a verb.
“Their” and “there” are more difficult, but check out that “here” in “there.” Both words refer to a place or position, which leaves “their” as the pronoun.
Than vs. Then
Like “affect” and “effect,” this homophone pair can trip up even the most careful of homeschool writers! “Than” can be either a conjunction or preposition, and “then” is an adverb.
Conjunction/Preposition: I’d rather have chocolate than vanilla.
Adverb: Read the book first, and then watch the movie.
“Than” is most commonly used to compare two things, so just remember that if you are compAring, you should use thAn. That leaves “then” as the adverb (and also a common transition word).
To vs. Too vs. Two
Another triple threat! “To” is a preposition, “too” is an adverb, and “two” is a number.
Preposition: We headed to the concert at seven.
Adverb: I would like the steak too.
Number: Two birds built a nest.
“Two” can be pretty easily discerned—if you’re not talking about a number, you’ve got the wrong homophone. As for “to” and “too,” just remember that “too” often notes an addition of something—and “too” has the addition of one “o” to make it different than “to”!
Your vs. You’re
Finally, we end with a pair that’s often mixed up but can be easily discerned. “Your” is a pronoun, and “you’re” is a contraction.
Pronoun: Your necklace is beautiful.
Contraction: You’re going to win the contest!
Once again, we know that a contraction must include an apostrophe, so if you need the verb, “you’re” is the one for you! That leaves “your” as the pronoun.
But more than anything else…
Overall, the best way for homeschool students to conquer homophone mishaps is to simply be careful, both as they write and especially as they proofread. Take the time to look up a word. Make sure the word means what you’re trying to say. After all, spellcheck is helpful—but it’s still no match for the human brain.
Essentials in Writing