When you are listening to someone speaking English you may encounter a word that you thought you knew but find out it has a new (to you) meaning! In English, there are many examples of homophones—words like knew and new—that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. 

Here are some of the most common homophones in English!

What words are homophones in English?

There are several ways words can be similar—and confusing! Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same but mean something different. If homonyms are spelled exactly the same, like well for a hole dug in the ground to obtain water and well to describe how you're doing, they are called homographs. If the homonyms have different spellings, they are homophones.

Here are 12 common English homophones and just a couple of their possible meanings:

12 common homophone pairs
cell (the smallest unit of living organisms) sell (to give in exchange for money)
cereal (a breakfast food from grain) serial (taking place in a series)
coarse (rough) course (route or direction)
days (a period of 24 hours) daze (a state of stunned confusion)
meet (to come into the company of) meat (the flesh of an animal as food)
one (the lowest cardinal number) won (past and past participle of win)
pair (a set of two things) pear (a sweet, juicy fruit, narrower at the top and wider at the bottom)
pour (to flow rapidly in a steady stream) pore (a minute opening in a surface, especially skin)
rap (to strike with a series of blows) wrap (to cover or enclose in paper)
roll (a very small loaf of bread) role (an actor’s part in a play, movie)
wait (to stay where one is until a particular time or until something else happens) weight (the heaviness of a person or thing)
weather (the general condition of the atmosphere at a particular moment) whether (a conjunction that expresses a choice between alternatives)

Why homophones are challenging

There are so (sew?) many ways to spell the same sounds in English. This is due to changes over time in English pronunciation. In fact, it’s estimated that between 7% and 15% of all English words are homophones!

Confusing consonants
As you can see in the table above, the letters "c" and "s" can represent the same sound, as in cell and sell. The written letter "s" is also sometimes used for the "z" sound, as in days and daze

Variable vowels
Vowel sounds, especially, can be spelled multiple ways as in meet and meat and cereal and serial. Other vowel sounds that are spelled differently in different words include the vowels in pair and pear, wait and weight, and weather and whether. In U.S. English, the homophones pore and pour and course and coarse are all pronounced with the same vowel sound—which can be represented with three different letter combinations! 

Special spellings
There are some situations in which the letter "w" isn't pronounced—like before "r"—leaving English with homophones like wrap and rap. In other cases, the "w" sound isn't written with a "w" at all, as in won and one

How to tell homophones apart

Remember that homophones have different meanings and can be different parts of speech (like wait, the verb, and weight, the noun). This means that you can use clues from the topic of conversation and right in the sentence itself to decipher the meaning of the word. 

However, when you have to write homophones, you may not be able to use context clues! Instead, you may want to consult a dictionary or online translator to make sure you have the one you intend to use. With practice—especially reading practice—you'll soon learn the spellings for the most common homophones!

Sounds can be deceiving!

English spelling may be overwhelming at times, but you can practice all these homophones in your Duolingo lessons. Then you will better understand the differences among buy, by, and… bye! 👋