It doesn’t really matter to a two-year-old watching a certain classic Australian pre-school TV program whether the lyrics of the introductory song read ‘theirs a bare in they’re’, ‘there’s a bare in their’ or ‘there’s a bear in there’ (the correct version); because they all sound the same. English has an abundance of groups of two or more words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings and/or spelling. These are called homophones. They can have the same pronunciation and spelling but different meanings—for example, bear (the animal) and bear (to carry), or have identical pronunciation but different spelling and meanings—for example, bear (the animal) and bare (devoid of covering). Usually there are two or three words that are differently spelt homophones of one another, but there can be four or more—for example, ‘your, you’re, yaw and yore’. Examples of homophones that are commonly interchanged, even by native English writers, are ‘role and roll’, ‘week and weak’, it’s and its’, principal and principle’, ‘to, too and two’ (especially to and too) and ‘there, their and they’re’.
Homophones can create problems in academic writing because they are not be detected by spell checkers (as they are not spelt incorrectly) and will often be missed by grammar checkers, especially if the statement still makes grammatical sense. For example, ‘I see a bare head’ and ‘I see a bear head’ are both grammatically correct, although there might be dramatically different outcomes if the writer was in the Canadian Rockies! If you cut and paste the second title of this blog into a document and do a grammar check, you will see just how insensitive this is for detecting inappropriate homophones and letting you know it should be ‘just because it sounds right doesn’t mean it’s been written the right way’.
Using the wrong homophone can sometimes have a humorous (but not humerus) outcome, but it is, of course, undesirable to leave such an error in academic work submitted for assessment. How can this be avoided if standard software tools don’t really help? A good start is being aware of commonly misused homophones and mistakes you have made with particular words in the past. Checking in a dictionary when you are doubtful of any word is always advisable. Finally, nothing beats another pair of eyes looking over your work. It is very common for authors, even experienced ones, to miss errors (of all kinds) in their own work. Having a document proofread is a great way to pick up all sorts of mistakes, including using a homophone of the word you actually meant.