Homophone is Greek for “same sound.” A homophone can be defined as a word that, when pronounced, seems similar to another word, but has a different spelling and meaning. The two words may be spelt the same, as in ‘rose’, the flower and ‘rose’, the past tense of rise, or differently, as in ‘rain’, ‘reign’, and ‘rein’. The term “homophone” may also apply to units longer or shorter than words, such as phrases, letters, or groups of letters which are pronounced the same as another phrase, letter, or group of letters. Any unit with this property is said to be “homophonous”. In literature, homophones are used extensively in poetry and prose to make rhythmic effects and to put emphasis on something. They are also used to create a multiplicity of meanings in a written piece.

The Important Effects of Homophones

There are three possible effects of homophones:

Error

This is the most common effect of homophones. They can lead you to make spelling and grammar mistakes, which negatively affect the quality of your writing.

Ambiguity

Sometimes an author will make a homophone mistake that isn’t quite a spelling or grammar error but still makes the sentence less readable. This is because homophones create ambiguity; in other words, they make the meaning of the sentence unclear.

Pun

If you’re going for laughs, you can try using a homophone joke, or pun.

Common Homophone Pairs

brake/break
When teaching my daughter how to drive, I told her if she didn’t hit the brake in time she would break the car’s side mirror.

cell/sell
If you sell drugs, you will get arrested and end up in a prison cell.

cent/scent
I won’t spend one cent on a bottle of perfume until I know that I love the scent.

die/dye
If you accidentally drank a bottle of fabric dye, you might die.

flour/flower
To bake a flower-shaped cake, you’ll need some flour.

for/four
I purchased four new pairs of shoes for my upcoming vacation.

heal/heel
If the heel breaks on your shoe, you might fall. However, your injuries will heal over time.

hear/here
I wanted to sit here so I could hear the singer performing without any distractions.

hour/our
We have one hour before our appointment with the real estate agent.

idle/idol
Being idle makes me unhappy, but listening to my idol Taylor Swift makes me happy.

knight/night
The knight is on his way to the castle, but travelling at night is very dangerous.

knot/not
I do not know how she learned to tie the knot to make that necklace.

right/write
There is no right way to write a great novel.

sea/see
At my beach house, I love to wake up and see the sea.

sole/soul
I need to get a new sole put on my favourite pair of running shoes. Jogging is good for my soul.

son/sun
My son is 13 years old. He likes to spend time outside in the sun.

steal/steel
Someone who decides to steal a car has committed a crime, but auto parts are made of steel.

tail/tale
My cat was crazily chasing his tail while I read a fairy tale to my children.

weather/whether
I don’t know whether to bring a jacket or not. The weather looks unpredictable today.

Examples of Homophones

Their trying to get home on time to see they’re favourite show.

In this example, the author has gotten confused about homophones and made a mistake. This sort of confusion is a very common source of spelling and grammar errors, so as a writer you have to know your homophones well!

I’ll wait for you by the bank.

This isn’t a grammar error, but it is a confusing sentence – does the author mean “riverbank” or “savings & loan bank”? This is called ambiguity.

Examples of Homophones in Literature

“How is bread made?’
‘I know that!’ Alice cried eagerly. ‘You take some flour─’
‘Where do you pick the flower?’ the White Queen asked. ‘in the garden or in the hedges?’
‘Well, it isn’t picked at all’ Alice explained; it’s ground─’
‘How many acres of ground?’ said the White Queen.”
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

There are two sets of homophones in this passage: flour/flower, and ground/ground (also homonyms). The ambiguity is humorous, resulting in a couple of puns. It also contributes to a general sense of confusion and weirdness, which is central to the tone of Lewis Carroll’s book.

“I’m a lawyer,” said the corkscrew, proudly. “I am accustomed to appear at the bar.
(L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz)

There’s a homonym here with the word “bar” – in one meaning, it’s a place where people go to drink (so a corkscrew belongs there). In another, it means a court of law (where a lawyer might appear).

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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