Dave’s WW of EU: Homonyms

Homonyms are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. A few examples:

  • hear, here
  • passed, past
  • buy, by
  • to, two, too
  • four, for, fore
  • then, than
  • where, wear
  • read, red

Most people can handle homonyms well simply because they are often some of the most commonly used words (not necessarily a correlation there, by the way), but there are a handful of sticky ones. Some of the big ones that people consistently have trouble with are the following:

  • then, than
  • to, two, too
  • it’s, its

Here’s the difference….

Then, Than

Then always involves a sense of time or a progression in order. Than is used to compare or (occasionally) as a replacement for when.

NOTE: After discussing this with a friend, I’ve decided to point out that then and than aren’t really homonyms. Most grammarians don’t list them as such. However, I am still including them because I don’t make a strong distinction in speech (which means they are homonyms for me). I also feel comfortable including them because they are very commonly confused words. Yet another good example of the living nature of our language.

To, Two, Too

Two is a number, too means also, in addition, or in excess, and to means in a direction, to the extent of, etc. To also functions as a preposition whereas the others do not.

It’s, Its

This is one of those word pairs that many people use as a distinguisher of your education. Use it right and no one cares; use it wrong and everyone notices. The big problem that most people have is with the apostrophe. Normally, an apostrophe followed by an s means the possessive, but in this case, it does not. It is a contraction representing it is. Its (without the apostrophe) is actually the possessive in this case. When I’m editing, I find it especially helpful to break out the contraction and actually pronounce it is to make sure that I am doing it right.


Homonyms are just one of those things that you just have to learn through practice. Fortunately, because homonyms sound the same, you’ll never use one incorrectly in speech. It’s the writing you have to worry about.

Here’s a link to a test offered at an Elementary School. See how you do.

This entry was posted in Dave's Wonderful World of English Usage. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dave’s WW of EU: Homonyms

  1. Sarah L. says:

    Andrew and I have had arguments about how he has to use the correct versions of “for” and “four”. He thinks it’s silly that they’re spelled different ways.

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