A homonym is a word that sounds like another word, but has a different meaning or spelling. If it shares spelling with another word (such as “bark,” which can be either the noise a dog makes or the stuff on the outside of a tree), it is also a homograph; if it simply shares the sounds of another word, it is a homophone.
It takes a whole lot of Greek words to spell out one simple problem: now, not only do writers of English have to worry about word choice, they have to worry about homonym choice. Using the wrong one can drastically alter the meaning of your sentence, or cause it to not make sense at all. Because of that (and because your professor will notice), it’s important to be sure that you are using words correctly.
Some troublesome homophones frequently used by students (and ignored by spell-check):
It’s / Its
This is a trick played on you by the English language: we all are taught that an apostrophe combined with an –s (Sharon’s book) is possessive—that is, it indicates that something is owned or possessed by something else.
That’s a pretty reliable rule, but it doesn’t work here. No, someone along the way decided to create a contraction out of It is, and threw a wrench into the works. Now, at least with it’s and its, you’re stuck with a construction that may seem completely counterintuitive. Quite simply (because grammar rules are always simple, right?), it goes like this:
It’s = a contraction of It is, or It has. It’s a mad, mad world.
It’s been a long time.
Its = possessive. The brown cow meekly ate its hay.
An easy way to check yourself when using these two words is simply to insert It is/has into the sentence—if it makes sense, you’re done. If it doesn’t, you are probably looking at the possessive form; try inserting her, instead.
Examples: It has been a long time (not) *Hers been a long time.
The brown cow ate her hay (not) *The brown cow ate it is hay.
There / Their / They’re
The difference here is relatively easy, because even though we have more options, they each have very specific uses:
There = indicates a placement or location. Put the couch there.
Their = the possessive form of They. The one on the corner is their house.
They’re = a contraction of They are. They’re going out of town tomorrow.
Again, when you want to be sure you’ve used the right form, start by inserting the un-contracted They are. If that sounds wrong, try substituting here—if something can be over there, then grammatically it can also be over here—and if that makes sense, you know you’re looking at the locational There.
Examples: Put the couch here. (not) *Put the couch they are.
They are going out of town (not) *Here going out of town.
It is their house (not) *It is they are house.
(not) *It is here house.
Who’s / Whose
Again we find ourselves faced with the question of possession versus contraction, just like we had with It’s / Its.
Who’s = a contraction of Who is or Who has.
They will announce who’s going to the semifinals.
Whose = the possessive form of Who. Whose book was it?
Luckily, the problem not only looks the same, but can also be solved in the same way as It’s/Its. Simply substitute the expanded Who is into your sentence. Does it sound right? If not, you’re looking at Whose.
They will announce who is going (not) *Who is book was it?
Your / You’re
This is, arguably, one of the most stigmatized mistakes made by writers of English, but it can be avoided by thinking (once again) about the difference between possession and contraction.
Your = the possessive form of You (both singular and plural). Here is your book.
You’re = a contraction of You are. You’re going to love it.
You can solve the problem in the same way as It’s/Its and Who’s/Whose: If you want to know if you’ve used it correctly, substitute the expanded You are and see what it looks like. If it makes sense, you’ve won. If not, simply use your—you probably have a possessive on your hands.
You are going to love it (not) *Here is you are book.
To / Too / Two
This threesome is tricky. For instance, Merriam-Webster lists no fewer than thirteen different uses of To, so there is no easy way to summarize its use. Too is a little easier, because it usually implies something ‘extra’ (hence the extra ‘o’). Two, luckily, is the simplest of the whole bunch of homonyms, because it’s really just 2. Here are a few examples:
To = “for the purpose of” To make the test easier, she studied.
a preposition indicating direction. I am going to the store.
Note: there are many ways to use this particular “to”—these are just common examples.
Too = meaning “also” or “overly” Ma’am, you protest too much.
Her little sister wanted earrings, too.
Two = relating to 2 (the number). The two bunnies frolicked in the sun.
Instead of a substitution test, it is best to think about the word you are trying to use very carefully here. Do you want to talk about the number? Easy: always spell it out, and use two. Are you adding or including information, or indicating an excess of something? Then add an extra ‘o’ to your word choice, and use too.
The way we use each of these homonyms (or homographs, or homophones) can drastically affect the meaning of a sentence or phrase. Try to add these distinctions to your writing arsenal, and you’ll find more precision (and fewer red marks) on your page.