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Troublesome words

  • August 8, 2011
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Homonyms in English are strange little words that sound similar but are spelled differently and have different meanings. These can be tricky, and not just for those learning English as a second language, even those who have spoken the language since birth can confuse them from time to time. Here are some common homonyms and examples of each word’s proper usage.

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Past vs. Passed

This pair is among the most notorious of homonyms and are regularly–and incorrectly–swapped. To make the confusion worse, not only do the two words sound similar, they are often used in similar situations. “Past” is a noun, adjective, and adverb, and “passed” is generally used as a verb or adjective. To determine the use and meaning, examine the rest of the sentence: read it “in context”.

Noun: “In the past, television had much fewer commercials.”

Adjective: “Over the past week, Bob has really helped out.”

Verb: “The red car passed the blue car,” or “Because he studied homonyms all night, Fred passed his English test.”

“The time for action is in the past.”

“The time for action has passed.”

Lie vs Lay

When used as verbs, these words are frequently confused and are among the most difficult to keep straight. A way to remember: “lie” is “doing” and “lay” is “putting”.

The verb forms of lie: lie (present,) lay (past), and lain (past participle).

The verb forms of lay: lay (present), laid (past), and laid (past participle). “Layed” is not a word and is incorrect.

“After lunch, you should lie down.”

“The lions lie in the tall grass, watching the zebras.”

“The bed was messy, as if someone had lain in it.”

“Lay the hammer on the table.”

“Phyllis laid her pencil down and turned her test in.”

“The electricians had worked all week and had laid a thousand feet of wiring.”

Rise vs Raise

Similar to lie and lay, “rise” is an action that is performed, and “raise” is an action that is performed on an object.

“When I rise in the morning, I like to read the paper.”

“The motto for the Portland Trailblazers is ‘Rise With Us’.”

“Frankie rose late for work today and had to rush.”

“The Sun Also Rises”–a novel by Ernest Hemingway

“Families prefer to raise their children in a quiet neighborhood.”

“Raise your glasses in a toast to hippos–where would we be without them?”

“I raised my pillow to hit the alarm clock.”

“You can tell a bird’s about to fly away when it raises its wings.”

Proceed vs Precede

“Proceed” means to advance or carry on, especially after an interruption.

“After lunch, we shall proceed with the tour.”

“The chicken proceeded to lay half a dozen eggs.”

“Hopefully the party proceeds as planned, despite the rain.”

“Precede” refers to something that comes before.

“Dark skies and winds precede a storm.”

“The Stone Age preceded the Bronze Age.”

“Breakfast precedes lunch.”

There are lists of homonyms on the web, as English is riddled with words that sound similar yet have different meanings and/or spellings; some of them are very common and are used in everyday conversation and writing. There are no quick rules on them, and most are just a matter of memorization and reading the words in context. Can you think of any others that still confuse you?

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