Language · Word of the week

Word of the week: homophone

Homophones: words which sound the same but are spelt differently, like “their” and “there”, and indeed “they’re”. They formed part of my 9-year-old daughter’s homework again at the weekend and we have been discussing them on the way to school.

Most commonly there are pairs of homophones, like “pail” and “pale” – the former was a word that my daughter learnt from the time we spent reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. If I hadn’t read that page aloud (when Mr Beaver goes out to catch some fish, soon after the four children arrive together in Narnia) she might not have learnt until some future time that a pail is a bucket (and a hatchet is a kind of axe). Other common examples: “main” and “mane” (lions again), “sale” and “sail” and “tale” and “tail”.

But we are on the look-out for Homophone Triples, and trying to work them into sentences, like this one: “I rode my bicycle down the road, got to the river and rowed to the other side”. There are probably websites that can do this stuff for you but to me this seems like a good example of where you should test your vocabulary and memory first, try and work things out, rather than read through a list that someone else has compiled. So, before reading to the end of this piece you might want to come up with a few of your own. It gets easier with practice.

The Guardian newspaper’s “Corrections and clarifications column editor” often refers to “Homophone Corner”, as in this example from last year: “However, with success has come scrutiny, causing a bumpy few days as reporters poured over the party’s proposals”. It should read “pored over”, but sometimes the homophone provides a more interesting image, such as reporters “pouring” all over a document.

I came across something similar in an IMDB review of the new “Dad’s Army” movie, someone describing “Nazi hoards” rather than “Nazi hordes”, though it immediately got me thinking about the likelihood of treasure and artworks looted by the Nazis and still languishing in Swiss bank accounts 70 years after the end of World War Two. And then I wondered if “hoard”, “horde” and “whored” could be counted as a Homophone Triple, but not one that I’d want to discuss with the children. It’s all down to the pronunciation. A common Irish pronunciation of “whore” is “hoo-er”, but it’s not a word that I ever use. Here in West London “witch” and “which” would be considered as homophones, but not in Scotland, where the “h” is generally pronounced in the “wh” sound in words like “which” and “what” and “wheat”.

“Pour”, “pore” and “poor” are a Homophone Triple and at a stretch (if you never pronounce the “r” at the end of words) you might even include “paw” to make it a Quadruple, but for me that’s going too far (not “two far” or, as seems to be obligatory on many social media posts, “to far”).

Like adverbs (in these pieces from January and February) this will probably play on my mind and lead to a separate post with dozens of examples but for now I’ll leave you with two sentences that use the only possible Homophone Quadruples that I’ve come up with so far.

I was outside Ray’s house – this was just before someone tried to raze it to the ground – and attempted to raise my eyes, but the sun’s rays were too strong.

“Bye”, he said, as he went by, off to buy something, and his friends still wondered if he was straight, or gay, or bi.

(No, I won’t be running that last one by the children for a while.)

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