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Originally published at the blog of Light Creative: https://lightcreative.com.au/journal/common-mistakes-homophone-edition/

 

English is a wonderful, complicated, inconsistent, beautiful mess of a language, and there are an awful lot of rules to follow. It doesn’t help that we have a whole bunch of homophones – words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Occasionally the wrong word can sneak into a sentence, and that’s understandable (homophones are famously sneaky), but using the wrong word can really mangle a perfectly innocent sentence, and do serious damage to your credibility. Here are a couple of the most common homophone mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

 

You’re and Your

Use you’re when you mean you are.

Use your when you mean belonging to you.

For example:

Correct: Inspector Gubbins, your nose [the nose belonging to you] has solved the case yet again! You’re [you are] the best detective we’ve ever had!

Incorrect: Inspector Gubbins, you’re nose has solved the case yet again! Your the best detective we’ve ever had!

Tip: If you’re unsure about your and you’re, play the substitution game! Replace the your/you’re in your sentence with you are. If your sentence still makes sense, it’s you’re. If it doesn’t make sense anymore, it’s your.

 

To, Too and Two

Use to when you’re describing a destination, a recipient or an action.

Use too when you mean as well or when you’re describing an extreme.

Use two when you mean 2.

For example:

Correct: Awww! Look at Inspector Gubbins with his tail between his legs! He doesn’t want to go [action] to the meeting room [destination], he wants to stay [action] here and play with his tennis ball! I don’t blame him – those meetings always take far too long [extreme]! Last week we spent two [2] hours talking about the correct way to send [action] reports to the Chief [recipient]. That room is always freezing cold, too [as well]!

Incorrect: Awww! Look at Inspector Gubbins with his tail between his legs! He doesn’t want too go two the meeting room, he wants two stay here and play with his tennis ball! I don’t blame him – those meetings always take far to long! Last week we spent to hours talking about the correct way two send reports too the Chief. That room is always freezing cold, to!

Tip: Stick with the substitution game if you’re uncertain. Replace the to/too/two in your sentence with 2 – if it still makes sense, use two. If not, try replacing it with as well or extremely – if that makes sense, use too. To is a little bit trickier. If your to/too/two is in front of a verb (a ‘doing word’), it should be to. If you can replace it with towards, and the sentence still makes sense, use to. If you can replace it with as a gift for, and the sentence still makes sense, use to.

 

There, They’re and Their

Use there when you’re describing a destination.

Use they’re when you mean they are.

Use their when you mean belonging to them.

For example:

Correct: Oh no! Don’t look now, Inspector Gubbins, but those three men over there [destination] are members of the infamous criminal gang, the Very Naughty Boys! They’re [they are] wanted for questioning about some stolen peanut butter! We mustn’t let them get away! Can you pick up the scent of their bags [the bags belonging to them] from here?

Incorrect: Oh no! Don’t look now, Inspector Gubbins, but those three men over they’re are members of the infamous criminal gang, the Very Naughty Boys! Their wanted for questioning about some stolen peanut butter! We mustn’t let them get away! Can you pick up the scent of there bags from here?

Tip: If you can replace the there/they’re/their in your sentence with they are, use they’re. If you’re talking about something that belongs to a group, use their. For there, try replacing it in your sentence with where and turning your sentence into a question. For example, ‘those men over there!’ would become ‘those men over where?’, or ‘my cookie was right there a second ago!’ would become ‘my cookie was right where a second ago?’. If your sentence makes sense (and sounds a bit like something out of a pantomime), use there.

 

It’s and Its

Use it’s when you mean it is or it has.

Use its when you mean belonging to it.

For example:

Correct: Goodness me, look at Inspector Gubbins gnawing at that tennis ball – it’s [it is] covered in slobber! He must be stressed about a difficult case. He’s been chewing that ball for days, and now it’s [it has] lost most of its yellow fuzz [the yellow fuzz belonging to it].

Incorrect: Goodness me, look at Inspector Gubbins gnawing at that tennis ball – its covered in slobber! He must be stressed about a difficult case. He’s been chewing that ball for days, and now its lost most of it’s yellow fuzz.

Tip: This one can be a bit confusing, but just remember that when used with it, ‘s is ALWAYS a contraction of it is or it has. If you cannot replace the its/it’s in your sentence with it is or it has, use its. Don’t worry, we’ll go into apostrophes in greater detail in a separate article – they’re tricksy little hobbitses!

 

Who’s and Whose

Use who’s when you mean who is or who has.

Use whose when you mean belonging to someone.

For example:

Correct: Whose slobbery tennis ball [the slobbery tennis ball belonging to someone] is this? Who’s [who is] always leaving slobbery tennis balls in the interrogation room? Is it Ethelbert, the lab technician whose shoelaces [the shoelaces belonging to Ethelbert] are always untied, and who’s [who has] had mung beans for lunch every day this week? I’ll bet it is Ethelbert! Thanks a lot, Ethelbert!

Incorrect: Who’s slobbery tennis ball is this? Whose always leaving slobbery tennis balls in the interrogation room? Is it Ethelbert, the lab technician who’s shoelaces are always untied, and whose had mung beans for lunch every day this week? I’ll bet it is Ethelbert! Thanks a lot, Ethelbert!

Tip: The substitution game works for this one as well – if you can replace the who’s/whose in your sentence with who is or who has, and your sentence still makes sense, use who’s. If you’re talking about something that belongs to someone, use whose.

 

Hopefully this list will help you find your way through the hidden twists and turns of the Homophone House of Mirrors – good luck to you!