Homophones, and similar words that confound us


Homonyms are the identical twins of language: words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings – so you can’t tell them apart just by looking at them. Only context can define or identify them. Here, spelling is a doss: you can’t go wrong.

Homophones, on the other hand, are like linguistic fraternal twins: even though they’re very similar and they sound almost identical, and they might even dress alike and hang out in the same places, they are spelled differently: they look different. So they’re the ones that give us all headaches when it comes to writing and spelling. In real life, identical twins generally provide us with the greater challenge and fraternal twins tend to cause less embarrassment and confusion. It’s the opposite when it comes to language – at least when we’re spelling and composing.

Take a look at the list of homophones (or near-homophones) below, and ask yourself truthfully: how many of these words do you have to look up in a dictionary to make sure you’re using the right one? At least two of these pairings get me every time. (Basic definitions provided below, courtesy Merriam-Webster.)

accede / exceed

aural / oral

affect / effect

assent / ascent

bear / bare  (used as a verb)

complement / compliment

council / counsel (and councilor / counselor)

defuse / diffuse

discreet / discrete

elusive / allusive / illusive

elicit / illicit

hordes / hoards (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=873 )

imminent / immanent / eminent

populace / populous

premier / premiere (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=1105 )

prescribe / proscribe

principle / principal

prospective / perspective [not real homophones, but often confused]



accede: to become a party (as to an agreement); to express approval or give consent; to give in to a request or demand; to enter upon an office or position

exceed: to extend outside of; to be greater than or superior to; to go beyond a limit set by


aural: of or relating to the ear or sense of hearing

oral: uttered by the mouth or in words; of, given through or involving the mouth


affect: the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes; a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion

effect: something that inevitably follows an antecedent (as a cause or agent); an outward sign; power to bring about a result; a distinctive impression


assent: to agree to something especially after thoughtful consideration

ascent: the act of rising or mounting upward; an upward slope or rising grade; the degree of elevation


bear (vb.): to move while holding and supporting; to be equipped or furnished with; to support the weight of; to accept or allow oneself to be subjected to especially without giving way

bare (vb): to make or lay (something) bare (adj. lacking a natural, usual or appropriate covering)


complement: something that fills up, completes,  or makes perfect; to complete or enhance by providing something additional

compliment: an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration; to express esteem, respect, affection, or admiration to


council: an assembly or meeting for consultation, advice, or discussion; a group elected or appointed as an advisory or legislative body (a councilor is a member of a council)

counsel: advice given especially as a result of consultation (a counselor is a person who gives advice or counseling)


defuse: to make a situation less tense

diffuse: to spread widely or freely


discreet: unobtrusive; having or showing discernment or good judgement

discrete: separate, distinct


elusive: tending to evade grasp or pursuit; hard to comprehend or define; hard to isolate or identify

allusive: containing or characterized by indirect references; containing an allusion

illusive: based on or having the nature of an illusion


elicit: to draw forth or bring out

illicit: not permitted, unlawful


hordes/hoards (see an earlier Glossophila post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=873)


imminent: ready to take place

immanent: indwelling, inherent; being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge

eminent: standing out so as to be readily perceived  or noted; exhibiting eminence especially in standing above others in some quality or position: prominent 


populace (n.): the common people; masses; population

populous (adj): densely populated; having a large population


prescribe: to lay down a rule; to write or give medical prescriptions

proscribe: to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful


principle: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption; a primary source

principal: (adj): most important, consequential or influential; (n.) person who has controlling authority or is in a leading position


prospective: relating to or effective in the future

perspective: the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance; a mental view or prospect; the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions

premier / premiere: (see an earlier Glossophilia post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=1105 )