One-Letter Difference: 11 Commonly Misused Homophone Pairs

3 min read

“Homo” means “same” and “phone” means “sound.” So, “homophones” are words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. The English language is filled with hundreds of homophones (flour/flower, profit/prophet), but some words are especially tricky because only one letter changes both spelling and meaning. You may be able to get away with mixing these up when speaking, but be cautious when using these 11 homophone pairs in your writing.

Advice/Advise

These two words have similar meanings but are different parts of speech. “Advice” is a noun that refers to “guidance or recommendations.” (“Tom took advice from his lawyer.”) “Advise” is a verb that means “to offer suggestions about the best course of action.” (“The lawyer advised Tom to sign the contract.”)

Affect/Effect

These homophones are two of the most commonly confused words in the English language. “Affect” is a verb that means “to have an effect on.” (“The weather affected our summer vacation.”) When “effect” is used as a noun, it means “a change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.” (“The effect was that we canceled the beach trip.”)

Struggling to remember which homophone to use? Try substituting the verb “alter” or the noun “result.” If “alter” fits, then “affect” is the word you want. If “result” seems right, then “effect” is the correct word.

Aisle/Isle

It has a few slightly different usages, but “aisle” is “a passage between rows of seats in a building.” (“The bride walked down the aisle of the church.”) An “isle” however, is “an island or peninsula, especially a small one.” (“The couple spent their honeymoon on the Isle of Skye.”)

Buy/By

“Buy” is a verb that means “to obtain in exchange for payment.” (“They saved the down payment to buy the house.”) Delete one letter for “by,” which is a preposition that identifies who is performing an action. (“The house was painted by the homeowners..”) Even though the definitions and parts of speech are completely different, these are easy words to mix up in writing.

Capital/Capitol

The word “capital” has quite a few meanings. It can refer to uppercase letters, money or assets, or an important city. (“Paris is the capital of France.”) But a “capitol” is “a building housing a legislative assembly,” such as the U.S. Capitol Building, located in Washington, D.C.

Compliment/Complement

A “compliment” is “a polite expression of praise or admiration.” (“Trudy gave Susan a compliment on her sweater.”) “Compliment” can also be a verb, describing the action of giving such praise. Meanwhile, a “complement” is “a thing that completes or brings to perfection.” (“Susan’s sweater was the perfect complement to her purple boots.”) As a verb, “Susan complemented her sweater with purple boots. Here’s a tip to remember the one-letter difference: “I” love to receive compliments (with an “i”).

Here/Hear

The word “here” is an adverb that indicates location. (“He was right here the whole time.”) “Hear” is all about listening and means “to perceive sound with the ear.” (“She couldn’t hear him over all the cheering.”)

Insure/Ensure

With only a swap in the first letter, this is a commonly confused and tricky word pair. When something is insured, it is secured or protected. (“Joe insured the house in case of fire damage.”) “To ensure” means, to make certain that something shall occur or be the case.” (“He ensured the family would not be financially harmed if there were a fire.”)

Stationary/Stationery

If something is stationary, it’s not moving. (“Juan received a stationary bike for his birthday.”) But “stationery” with an “e” is “writing paper, especially with matching envelopes.” (“He wrote a thank you note on some fancy stationery.”) Here’s another memory trick: A letter (with an “e”) is written on stationery (with an “e”).

Than/Then

“Than” is a conjunction that’s “used to introduce the second element in a comparison.” (“The cheetah is faster than the lion.”) “Then” is an adverb describing elements of time. (“The gazelle starts running, then the cheetah dashes after it.”)

To/Too

The word “to” is a preposition that means “expressing motion in the direction of a particular location.” In other words, it tells about direction. (“Nadia walked to work.”) Add an extra “o,” and you get “too,” an adverb that modifies a word to a higher degree. It’s sometimes used to replace “also.” (“Nadia walked home, too.”)
Featured image credit: Massonstock/ iStock

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