Tip #82: Get the “phones”! (Homophones and Heterophones)

I am loath to post about today’s topic, not only because it’s one part of the English language that I loathe, but because it could go on and on, with a myriad of examples, so bear with me. (Please don’t “bare” with me, as I’m not naked and it could be quite embarrassing for you in those quiet little corners of the Internet.) Having fun already, aren’t we?

I’m going to take you all back to grammar school–elementary, my dear–and talk to you about homophones and heterophones (sometimes called heteronyms). This sort of post may seem a bit trivial but, as a reader and editor, I see these common mistakes in books far too often.

I’m just going to offer a few examples of each term to give you an idea of how they work; otherwise, it would be a laundry list and I’m sure many of you have better things to do than sit around and read blog posts all day. Perhaps laundry?


Homophones – two or more words which sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. These would include the infamous two, to, and too –which are all too often majorly misused by the majority of the population–even authors. “Two” signifies a number, “to” can be used as an adverb or preposition (Ex: He pushed the door to.), and “too” means an excess.

Too much information? Nah. One can never be too educated.

Other Homophones:

*your/you’re – You’re going to be late for your own party. (The first is a contraction meaning you are, and the second shows possession.)

*there/they’re/their – They’re going to be there for their party on the 7th. (The first is again a  contraction, meaning they are. The second is a word that can be used as a noun, adverb, pronoun, or adjective but it does not show possession. Their is a word that shows possession – as in, it belongs to them.)

Those were some simple cases. I’ll now offer more challenging examples:

*principle/principal – A principle is a core rule or standard. A principal is the head of a school. (Even more confusing, principal can also be used as an adjective to describe something that is first or in highest rank. Ex: My principal reason for becoming principal of this school was to be a mentor for young children.)

*capitol/capital – A capitol is a specific building that houses a government’s legislative branch. An easy way to remember this is to think of Capitol Hill (The White House) building, which has a dome (round like an “o”). Notice I didn’t use a (stay with me here) capital letter for the word “capitol” in the first sentence as I did in the second. That’s because the only time a capital letter is needed is when one is referring to Capitol Hill, or a proper noun involving the word “capitol.”

Capital has three meanings. Two too many if you ask me. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) It can refer to a significant amount of money in financial dealings–the money a person or business has, not including debts. (Ex: capital gains, capital losses, capital assets)

Capital can also refer to the primary city of a state. (Ex: The capital of Georgia is Atlanta.)

And finally, capital can describe something that is first rate, excellent, or of highest degreeor at the same time, most severe. (Ex 1: It is of capital importance that you be on time for the ceremony.) (Ex 2: He was sentenced to life in prison for a capital crime.)

Okay, still with me?


Now we will discuss heterophones (also known as heteronyms). These are words that do not sound the same and have different meanings. The good thing about these words is that they are also spelled the same, so authors just need to make sure they are using them in correct context.

Here are some common heterophones:

*read/read (pronounced like RED/REED) -I read a book about learning how to read.

*bow/bow (has the long “o” sound/has a short “o” sound like “ouch”) – The girl with the red bow took a bow on stage after the play. Bow can also refer to the front part of a boat.

*contract/contract (Con-TRACT/CON-tract) – I’ll attend the meeting via satellite. I don’t want anyone to contract my illness while we are discussing the contract. 

*record/record (Record/RE-cord) – For the record, I have booked the studio for three hours this Saturday to record all of the songs for my album.

*insult/insult (IN-sult/in-SULT) – It was a deliberate insult when Jerry’s boss insulted his intelligence by telling him to write his name on the presentation before handing it in. (Yeah, it’s a wordy sentence, but you get the point.)

*produce/produce (PRO-duce/pro-DUCE) – The produce market doesn’t have room to hold all the crops that our local farmers produce.


***Special note: Breathe and breath ARE NOT heterophones or homophones, but I think it’s important to mention them here because I see these two mixed up all the time. 

An easy way to remember the difference is: You breathe in a breath. Breathe has a long “e” whereas breath contains a short “e” sound, as in short of breath.

For those who made it all the way to the end of this post, I commend you for either brushing up on your “phones” or learning them correctly for the first time, to use in making your writing better. I’ll be offering future posts on the “graphs” soon. Stay tuned!!!

And now a little comic relief from one of my favorite shows! Perfect to go with today’s post. Enjoy!


I’m curious. Do any of you have trouble with particular homophones or heterophones? (Admittedly, I used to mix up capital and capitol, but no more.) Feel free to comment below!

In case you missed it yesterday



Leave a Comment


  • Stephen Geez

    People who have learned much of their vocabulary verbally often don’t know the different spellings. People who have learned substantially from reading often don’t know the pronunciations. (It’s fun to watch Kids’ Week on Jeopardy because they have a lot of book knowledge but often can’t pronounce words or proper nouns.)

    Differences abound between pronunciations on either side of the pond. I wish those pushy Brits would trying to speak English and let us have our language our way.

    This reminds me about how to pronounce this word: ghoti. It’s “fish.” gh from the word laugh, o from the word women, and ti from the word caption.

    Thanks, Traci.

    • Traci Sanders

      What is this strange word of which you speak? “Ghoti”?

  • Stephen Geez

    I mean those UK types should QUIT trying to speak English and leave us to it already!

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