In this lesson, we’re going to clarity the differences between several homophones found in the English language. Homophones are words with identical pronunciations but different spellings and different meanings. These words represent a challenge for non-native speakers of any language because the distinction between or among them is essentially irrelevant in spoken language. It is only in written language that choosing the correct homophone becomes important.
There, Their, and They’re
“There” is a place word. It indicates a specific location. “Their” is a plural possessive pronoun.” “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.” The distinction among these three words can be confusing even for native English speakers, so consider the following example:
There is an ESL school in Atlanta named the English Island. Their English teachers are some of the best in the country. They’re passionate, knowledgeable, caring, and professional.
Its and It’s
These homophones are easily-confused by native and non-native English speakers alike. “Its” is the possessive form of “it,” while “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” If you are struggling to decide on the correct one, try inserting “it is” into a sentence. If you can insert “it is,” go with “it’s.” If you cannot, you need to use “its” instead:
It’s [it is] almost five o’clock.
The university requires its [it is] students to take at least two semesters of a foreign language in order to graduate.
Ate and Eight
“Ate,” the past tense of “eat,” has the same pronunciation as the cardinal number “eight (8)”:
I ate a bagel on my way to the eight o’clock meeting.
Band and Banned
A “band” is a group of musicians. “Banned” is the past tense of “ban,” meaning that something has been legally prohibited or a person or persons have been officially excluded from a place, event, or activity:
The band performed its latest hit single on the late show.
After catching several students on social media during class, the teacher banned all cell phones from the classroom.
Buy, Bye, and By
“Buy” means “to purchase.” “Bye” is an abbreviation of “goodbye.” “By” is (depending on its usage) either a preposition or an adverb:
I need to buy paper towels the next time I’m at Kroger.
I can’t make it to Julie’s farewell party. Say “bye” for me!
You can remember which homophone to use by creating associations.
I drove by my childhood home the other day.
Coarse and Course
“Course” means rough or not finely ground. It can also refer to a person who is rude or vulgar in his or her speech or mannerisms. “Course” can mean (among other things), a direction of travel, a part of a meal, or a series of lessons on a particular subject:
The coarse gravel and steep incline of the driveway make it difficult for most vehicles to gain traction.
The company’s current direction just isn’t working. We need to chart a new course that better addresses the needs of our clients.
No and Know
“No” indicates a negative. It is the opposite of “yes.” On the other hand, “know” means to be aware of, familiar with, or to have knowledge of someone or something:
No. Sorry. I don’t know where you can buy that locally. Have you tried s