Commonly Confused Word Pairs
Words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings are called homophones, and especially for kids who are just learning to spell, they can cause trouble every time. There are some rules to help budding writers remember the trickiest homophones, but in many cases it’s just a matter of memory. There, their . . . they’ll get them in time.
Its and It’s
This pair is tough because apostrophes are often used to denote possessives—but not in this case. It’s is short for it is. So, “The dog wags its tail because it’s time to eat.”
Your and You’re
Kids (and even some grown-ups) get caught on this pair a lot, and it drives grammar-loving parents nuts. Your is possessive, while you’re is short for you are. “You have to know your rights,” but “I know, you’re right.”
There, they’re, their
The first of this trio is the easiest to remember: Just start here, then go over there by adding a T. They’re is short for they are. The last one, their, is possessive and you just have to remember that you add an I in the middle: “They got their ball and went home.”
Close and Clothes
You could clean up the clothes from the floor, or just be lazy and close the door. Reminding kids that clothes means clothing can help them keep this pair straight.
So and Sew and Sow
Only in The Sound of Music is sol(silent L) “a needle pulling thread.” The right way to spell what you’re doing when you stitch on a button or fix a seam is sew. If you’re outside spreading seeds or planting, you’re sowing. So, you’ll just have to commit these to memory.
Complement and compliment
This one is more challenging than some other examples here. You use complement when talking about things that go well together, like “That shirt complements your skin tone.” It can also be a noun, referring to a complete set. A compliment, on the other hand, is a nice thing to say. To remember the difference, think “I paid you a compliment.”
Through and Threw
“He threw the ball through the window.” Remind yourself that threw is the past tense of throw, and they only vary by one letter. If you’re walking through a tunnel, or something is flying through a window, it is traveling—and the longer word fits.
Affect and Effect
These words are similar in usage and meaning, so are extra tricky. But in most cases, one is a noun and the other a verb. Think the effect to remember that effect is the noun form.
Of course, you add an extra wrinkle when affect is a noun (She has a false affect) and effect is a verb (We are working to effect a change), but those usages are less common, especially in kids’ writing.
Accept and Except
To accept something is to agree to it. To except is to rule something out. “I accept that you’re a better speller than I am.” “I love all of my classes, except gym.” Think ex for things you want to get rid of.
Knew and New
“You knew these already, but to kids, they’re all brand new.” Early writers commonly misspell knew, because of that pesky silent k. But once they remember that it’s the past tense of know (which is different from no) they won’t mess it up again.
Laura Wallis is a freelance writer and editor specializing in all things family, home, food, and health. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and dog—none of whom take grammar as seriously as they should. She writes for The Stir by CafeMom.