Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.
Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.
A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.
Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.
The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.
When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.
The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.
My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.
So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!