Languages, and not least among them English, can be tricky to learn. Many English words are commonly confused due to a combination of factors including similar spellings, similar pronunciations and subtle differences in meanings. These words with similarities and differences are known as ‘homonyms’. The term ‘homonym’ comes from the Greek roots ‘homo’ meaning ‘same’, and ‘onym’ meaning ‘name’ or ‘word’, indicating words that share the same name or sound but that often have different meanings.

English has borrowed words from various languages over the ages, which has led to a diverse vocabulary with words that might look or sound alike but have distinct origins and uses. Additionally, the evolution of the English language over time has led to changes in pronunciation and meaning, contributing to confusion because words that used to be pronounced or written markedly differently have grown to look or sound similar, or often words that used to have distinct meanings have come to mean the same but perhaps with some subtle difference.

Furthermore, the widespread use of English around the world has resulted in regional variations and dialects, adding to the complexity, and many speakers of English as a foreign language also change the language subtly as they adapt it to their own expressive needs.

easily confused English words, homonyms


English has a multitude of homonyms due to its complex history of borrowing words from various languages, sound changes over time and its relatively large vocabulary. This mix of Germanic, Romance and other language influences, along with shifts in pronunciation and spelling, has led to words with the same or similar sounds but different meanings or spellings. Additionally, the willingness of the English language to adopt words from different sources contributes to the abundance of homonyms.

Homonyms are words that share the same spelling or pronunciation but have different meanings. They can be either homographs, words with the same spelling but different meanings, or homophones, words with the same pronunciation but different meanings.

Homonyms can often lead to confusion and may require context to determine the intended meaning.


A homophone is a linguistic term referring to words that sound the same or very similar when spoken. The term ‘homophone’ is derived from two Greek roots: ‘homo’ meaning ‘same’, and ‘phone’ meaning ‘sound’. So, homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings:

  • two, to, and too: ‘two’ as in the number 2, ‘to’ is a directional preposition, and ‘too’ is a synonym for ‘also’
  • their, there, and they’re: ‘their’ is the possessive form of ‘they’, ‘there’ is an adverb that usually denotes place, and ‘they’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’
  • *pore, pour, paw, and poor: to ‘pore’ is to study or examine closely or the small holes in your skin, to ‘pour’ is to transfer a liquid in a steady stream, a ‘paw’ is the foot of an animal with claws, like a cat or a dog, and ‘poor’ means lacking sufficient money and resources 
  • accept and except: ‘accept’ means to receive or agree to something; ‘except’ is used to exclude or leave out something
  • principal and principle: ‘principal’ can refer to the head of a school or the main aspect of something; ‘principle’ refers to a fundamental belief, rule or guideline
  • stationary and stationery: ‘stationary’ means not moving or fixed in one place; ‘stationery’ refers to writing materials like paper and pens
  • complement and compliment: ‘complement’ refers to something that completes or goes well with something else; ‘compliment’ is a kind remark or expression of admiration
  • past and passed: ‘past’ is a noun referring to the time before now; ‘passed’ is the past tense of the verb ‘pass’
  • allusion and illusion: ‘allusion’ is an indirect reference to something; ‘illusion’ is something that appears real but isn’t, like a mirage
  • cite, site, and sight: ‘cite’ means to quote or refer to something, ‘site’ refers to a location, and ‘sight’ refers to vision or seeing
  • advice and advise: ‘advice’ is a noun that means a recommendation or suggestion; ‘advise’ is a verb that means to give advice
  • eminent and imminent: ’eminent’ means famous or respected; ‘imminent’ refers to something about to happen soon
  • appraise and apprise: ‘appraise’ means to assess the value of something; ‘apprise’ means to inform or notify
  • your and you’re: ‘your’ is the possessive form of ‘you’, and ‘you’re’ is a contraction of ‘you are’
  • by, bye and buy: ‘by’ indicates the agent performing an action or the means through which something is done, ‘bye’ is shortened form of ‘goodbye’, and ‘buy’ means to acquire something by paying for it
  • flower and flour: a ‘flower’ is a bloom on a plant, and ‘flour’ is used for baking

For more on contractions such as ‘you’re’ and ‘they’re’ please visit the relevant article.

Further examples of common homophones include deer and dear, red and read, led and lead, brake and break, whole and hole, know and no, and many more.

*These words and numerous others of course vary in pronunciation according to the regional origin and dialect of the speaker.


Words that are spelled similarly but do not sound the same are called ‘homographs’. The term ‘homograph’ originates from the Greek roots ‘homo’ meaning ‘same’, and ‘graph’ meaning ‘write’ or ‘draw’. Homographs are words that share the same spelling but can have different meanings and may or may not be pronounced the same way:

  • lead can refer to a type of metal or to guiding someone, and although these two meanings are similarly spelled, they have different pronunciations
  • read can refer to both the present tense and the past tense of looking at words, in each instance it is pronounced differently
  • bank can refer to a financial institution or the side of a river
  • tear can be a noun for a drop of clear salty liquid secreted by glands in your eyes, and a verb meaning to rip or pull something apart forcefully
  • wind can mean moving air, or a verb to turn or twist
  • bow can be a curved weapon for shooting arrows, or a loop in a tie or ribbon, or an action meaning to bend forward at the waist as a gesture of respect
  • close can mean near in space or time, or to shut something
  • row can be a line of things, or an action to propel a boat with oars, or an argument
  • live can be an adjective meaning currently alive, or a verb that means to exist or reside

For any further explanation on the parts of speech in English (verbs, adjectives, etc.) please see the relevant post.

Other words that frequently cause confusion

Homonyms are not responsible for all the misunderstandings ain English, and there are other irregularities in the language too. Some words have distinct meanings although they appear to be interchangeable:

  • disinterested and uninterested: ‘disinterested’ means impartial or unbiased; ‘uninterested’ means lacking interest or not caring about something
  • bring and take: ‘bring’ indicates movement towards the speaker or a specified location, while ‘take’ indicates movement away from the speaker or a specified location
  • teach and learn: ‘teach’ involves imparting knowledge or skills to someone else, while ‘learn’ involves acquiring knowledge or skills
  • lay and lie: very commonly confused these days, ‘lay’ requires an object and refers to placing something down; ‘lie’ does not require an object and means to recline or rest in a horizontal position. The confusion arises in part because ‘lay’ is also the preterite (simple past tense form) of the verb to ‘lie’
  • come and go: ‘come’ refers to moving or arriving towards the speaker or a specified location, while ‘go’ refers to moving or departing away from the speaker or a specified location
  • fewer and less: ‘fewer’ is used with countable nouns to indicate a smaller number; ‘less’ is used with uncountable nouns to indicate a smaller amount. For more details please see the relevant post
  • continuous and continual: ‘continuous’ means uninterrupted or without a break; ‘continual’ means happening repeatedly over time
  • than and then: ‘than’ is used for comparisons, and ‘then’ relates to time or a sequence of events
  • farther and further: ‘farther’ usually refers to physical distance; ‘further’ often refers to a figurative or additional distance or progress
  • affect and effect: ‘affect’ is usually a verb meaning to influence or have an impact on something; ‘effect’ is usually a noun that refers to the result or consequence of an action
  • borrow and lend: ‘borrow’ means to take something temporarily with the intention of giving it back; ‘lend’ means to give something temporarily with the expectation of getting it back
  • infer and imply: ‘infer’ means to deduce or conclude based on evidence; ‘imply’ means to suggest indirectly without explicitly stating
  • breath and breathe: ‘breath’ is a noun referring to the air you inhale or exhale; ‘breathe’ is a verb meaning the action of taking in air. These two words are also pronounced differently


Remember that context matters. Advanced speakers of English can intricately convey ideas, while also leveraging cultural nuances and idiomatic expressions for authenticity. This proficiency combines technical skill, cultural awareness, intellectual curiosity and a passion for eloquent expression. Language is a powerful tool unique to humans with which we can connect, share, exchange ideas and impact.

To your success!

Exercises to practise


Test your knowledge of homophones

1 / 12

He accepted ____ thanks for his hard work.

2 / 12

The ____ in the roof allowed rain to leak in.

3 / 12

She is taking a ____ and has gone to France.

4 / 12

They have a large ____ tree in the garden.

5 / 12

There is a new business _____ in the hotel.

6 / 12

This jigsaw has a ____ missing.

7 / 12

Would you _____ the tea, please?

8 / 12

He will have ____ that book before.

9 / 12

His ____ of humour is quite unique.

10 / 12

I can't ____ to see you tomorrow.

11 / 12

She came down with the ____ on her birthday.

12 / 12

She chose a terrible camping ____ .

Your score is

The average score is 98%


If you have any comments or great additions, or questions and comments, please do enter them below.


Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, 3rd edn (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Crystal, David. Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling (Profile Books, 2013)

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Crystal, David. The Stories of English (Penguin, 2005)

Cushing, Ian. Language Change (Cambridge Topics in English Language) (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Harper Perennial, 2003)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct (Penguin Random House, 2015)

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules (W&N/ Science Masters, 2001)

Roach, Peter. English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course, 4th edn (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Thorne, Sarah. Advanced English Language, 2nd edn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Yule, George. The Study of Language, 4th edn (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)


  1. Hey there! I just wanted to drop by and say that your post is truly awesome. An informative breakdown of homonyms, homophones, and homographs in English. Immensely helpful for learners who are trying to navigate the sometimes perplexing nuances of our language. 

    Out of curiosity, I’m wondering if you have any plans to delve into other intriguing language-related topics in your future blog posts? It’s always exciting to learn more about the intricacies of language from someone who explains it so well!

    • Hi Jake. Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad you found this helpful.

      You may have noticed that this website is still only a few months old, and there are new posts being added all the time. If you have any suggestions, please do let me know.

  2. Another great post about the complexities of the English language! I love talking about English and all fun stuff that goes with it. I’m also a punster so the words in the puns come to mind in some of the jokes I’ve seen. A husband is asked, “What is your wife’s favorite flower?” He turns to his wife and asks, “It’s Gold Medal, isn’t it?” That husband hasn’t been seen lately. 🙂

    But on a serious side, I did have some observations. Do you think the pronunciation of some of the words depend on where you are from? For instance, where I live (Midwest USA), the word “paw” does not sound anything like “pour” and “poor.” The vowel sound would be like “law” or “awful.” Then I thought in some parts of the US, some accents put an “r” sound even in “law.” So maybe then “paw” could be a homophone of “pour.” 

    Generally, “appraise” and “apprise” are pronounced differently here. Some may confuse the usage so that they sound alike, but I pronounce them differently. 

    You have listed “bank” as a homograph, but both usages of the word are pronounced the same. Is there still a variation of a homograph that this would fall under? 

    I like your section on the words that can cause confusion. Those words are all quite fun! What do you think about “unconsciously” and “subconsciously”? I had a friend who went crazy with people who used the words incorrectly. Do you “unconsciously think of something” or “subconsciously think of something”? My friend would say, if you’re unconscious, then you are knocked or asleep and not thinking anything! 

    I enjoyed your post!

    • Hi Scott. Thanks so much for your comments, once again. I love the pun. Your comments are absolutely true and correct and I have added an asterisk with a note to the list of homonyms. Of course pronunciations in the United States are quite different to most UK dialects and a US website might well list different homonyms to this site, which is indeed UK Grammar.

      With regards to the homograph ‘bank’, I have given this as an example precisely because, as I have written, homographs may or may not be pronounced the same way.

      Unconsciously and subconsciously are fantastic examples. This is a pet annoyance of mine actually and I’m pleased not to be the only one;) Just don’t get me started!

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