The Oxbridge Editing Blog 10th January 2012

The Funny Grammar Guide to Heterographs

10th January 2012
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The word heterographs literally means ‘different writing’. It refers to two words in the English language which have different spellings but sound the same.

Some common examples are: Paws, pause, son, sun, need, knead, blew, blue, hair, hare, flower, flour, week, weak, bear, bare, dear, deer, rode, road, bee, be, might, mite, write, right, ate and eight.

Occasionally the task of remembering to tell these similar sounding words apart is made even more difficult when they come in groups of three, all sounding exactly the same but all three with different spellings!

For example: Pare, pair, pear, to, too, two, for, fore and four.

We’ve picked out some of the most commonly confused heterographs (along with some hilarious real-life examples of writers getting them mixed up) to help you learn the simple rules to spell them correctly every time.

Here and hear


The reason these two identical-sounding words are such a problem for writers is simply that they are both so commonly used. It is easy to remember a pair of words like ‘witch’ and ‘which’, because one is much more commonly used, but when both words arise frequently it can be much harder to tell them apart.

Just remember, ‘here’ refers to place.

For example: “Come here,” or “I’ll wait for you over here.”

‘Hear,’ on the other hand, refers to the use of the ears to experience the sensation of sound.

For example: “I can’t hear you.”

Remember, ‘hear’ can also be used more figuratively, in expressions like ‘did you hear the news?’

TOP GRAMMAR TIP: An easy way to remember how to spell these words is that the word ‘hear’ actually contains within it the word ‘ear’ within it, reminding you that it has to do with sound!

Bear and bare


Bear and bare present a different problem, because in addition to their two separate meanings, the word ‘bear’ itself also has two different meanings of its own. Words like this, which are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings, are called homonyms.

Remember, ‘bear’ means either the actual animal itself or to cope or deal with something. For example: Is that a bear over there? This tension is more than I can bear!

‘Bare’ is a more gentle way of saying nude, or stripped, but it can also refer to more figurative concepts than just nudity.

For example: What bare-faced cheek! Or, the cupboard was completely bare.

Toad and towed


These two are easier to tell apart because of the different vowels and the ‘w’ in ‘towed’, but that doesn’t stop writers from frequently mixing them up!

Toad refers only to the amphibian animal, though it is also often used as a metaphor or simile.

For example: The toad sat on the lily pad, or, the King squatted on his throne like an obscene toad.

Towed may be used as the past tense or participle of the verb ‘to tow’.

For example: The broken-down car was towed away, or, he towed his skateboard laboriously behind him.

TOP GRAMMAR TIP: Remember not to mistake words with similar sounds but different spellings for homophones or heterographs. Here are some common word pairs that are often mixed up but actually have their own completely unique spellings and meanings:

Affect, effect, accept, except